Ethan Frome depicts a nightmarish world, completely empty of the warmth and joy to be found in loving human interaction. Set in the cold and harsh landscapes of Starkfield, Massachusetts, the story is told by a narrator who attempts to discover what tragedy caused the enigmatic Ethan Frome’s literal and spiritual crippling. Piecing together information, the narrator learns that years earlier Ethan married Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his mother during her final illness. Shortly after the wedding, Ethan realized that his was a marriage without love and that he had simply exchanged the suffocating responsibility of a sick mother for the suffocating tie of a sick wife. Ethan, once filled with aspirations, finds instead that he is lashed to a wife whom he loathes and to a near-sterile farm that he cannot sell.
With lightness and life, Mattie Silver (Zenobia’s younger cousin) comes to the Frome house to help with chores. Mattie and Ethan fall in love, yet the strictures of conventional morality and Frome’s own strong sense of duty and loyalty prevent him from doing any more than voicing a tender, painfully pathetic love avowal. When Mattie is forced to leave, she decides that she would rather die than be separated from Ethan. Her plan, to crash their sled into an elm at the bottom of a steep slope, is tacitly agreed to by Ethan. However, the two survive the death ride, and the lovers’ suicide pact takes on a cruel twist. Mattie and Ethan, crippled and dispirited, share a living death in which their caretaker is the suddenly hardy Zenobia.
Ethan personifies the grievous waste of failed greatness. His body, a metaphor for his spirit, is described as “lame” and “warped,” and his once gallant and noble head rests on once “strong shoulders” which are now “bent out of shape.” In Ethan, the narrator confronts a prodigious soul grown weary, warped, and lame, and the narrator sees in Ethan’s ghastly alteration the suffering of a misspent life. Ethan, believing his renunciation of Mattie was motivated by a sense of honor, fails to see that the moral significance of the situation was not as clear and definable as he believed. Centering his choice on duty, not love, Ethan failed to consider the effect of his decision on Zenobia, in a marriage with a man who found her abhorrent, or on Mattie, who apparently did love him. Frome also never understood his own fear of change and of intimate sexual expression.
Despite its apparent bleakness, Ethan Frome articulates Edith Wharton’s most humanistic theme: The contact that people make with others can be the most meaningful thing that emerges from the stark field of human existence. The greatest tragedy is the failure to establish meaningful involvement with another.