Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277
Ethan Frome, a farmer frustrated in his ambition to become an engineer or a chemist and in his marriage to a nagging, sour, sickly wife. He falls in love with his wife’s good and lovely cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them. When his wife finally drives the girl away, Ethan insists on taking her to the station. Ethan and Mattie decide to take a sleigh ride they have promised themselves and, in mutual despair over the impending separation, they resolve to kill themselves by running the sled against a tree. They are not killed, only permanently injured, and Ethan’s wife is to look after them for the rest of their lives.
Zenobia Pierce Frome (Zeena)
Zenobia Pierce Frome (Zeena), Ethan’s wife, a distant cousin who nursed his mother during a long illness. The marriage is loveless, and Zeena is sickly and nagging.
Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin, who comes to live with the Fromes. She returns Ethan’s love, and once when Zeena spends a night away from home, she and Ethan spend a happy evening together, not making love but sitting quietly before the fire, as Ethan imagines happily married couples do. Mattie feels that she would rather die than leave Ethan, but in the crash she suffers not death, but a permanent spine injury and must submit thereafter to being nursed by Zeena.
Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale
Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale, a young engaged couple whom Ethan observes stealing a kiss. On his night alone with Mattie, he tells her wistfully about it; it is as close as he comes to making advances.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258
The characterizations in Ethan Frome are simple and intense. The three main characters have been stripped of all extraneous gestures and ornamentation. What remain are the essential passions and frustrations of human existence. In her introduction to the novella, Wharton compares the characters to the "granite outcroppings" of the New England landscape they inhabit: they are "but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate." Life had always presented itself "starkly and summarily" to these characters.
When readers first see Ethan Frome, twenty-four years after a catastrophic accident, he appears much older than his fifty-two years. Stiff and lame, he bears a red gash across his forehead. His physical appearance quite literally suggests the inner man: maimed by life, he is a shell of the kind, generous man that existed before the accident.
Mattie Silver and Zenobia Frome have also been reduced to essential characteristics. Before the accident, Mattie was not only beautiful and good-natured but also fragile and sickly, unable to survive in the harsh New England climate without a protector. Now that she has been crippled, these latter character traits have become dominant. Her one distinguishing characteristic is the "querulous drone" in her voice. In contrast, Zenobia Frome has found a purpose for her life because of the accident. In the early years of her marriage, her sole concern was her own physical welfare. She appeared indifferent, indeed hostile, to the needs of anyone else. But after the accident, her basic New England fortitude finds a lifetime mission as she resumes the "doctoring" of her youth.
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