Wharton’s main thrust in this much-disputed and problematical work is the presentation of a universe of moral ambiguity hemmed in by a physical universe that seems clear-cut in its starkness and finality. Images of death, frozen submission, imprisonment, and sterility imbue Ethan Frome with a sense of grim determinism. Yet it is not a deterministic work. Events seem ordained by both the nature and harshness of the characters’ lives, but Ethan is able to make, at least momentarily, a distinct decision as to what is right (not just “proper”) when he chooses not to lie to the Hales or to desert Zeena. His moment of truth comes with his sudden and melancholic realization of who he is and what he must do:. . . the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.
It is Wharton’s mastery of her subject matter that enables her readers to see both the grim inevitability of Ethan’s life and, at the same time, the grandeur of his moral choice in this grimmest of worlds. Her work is more properly termed tragic irony because, although Ethan decides not to abandon and humiliate Zeena by running away with Mattie, he weakens and decides (with her tacit consent) to commit mutual suicide. The irony exists in that he opts, finally, for an end to life through death and instead receives, in the vast indifference of Wharton’s universe, a death-in-life. He, Mattie, and Zeena continue to exist in the same entrapped, triangular relationship as before but without hope, without the vitality of Ethan and Mattie’s love. Furthermore, not only are the roles reversed, but the sick (Zeena) has become well, and the healthy or vital (Mattie and Ethan) have become maimed, crippled, and scarred (there is a red gash in Ethan’s forehead).
In many ways, the novel unites content and form through stylistic and metaphoric comparisons of the cold and frozen landscape as part and parcel of the character’s moral framework. Isolated, “frozen” in their poverty, barren (the Fromes are childless), and unhealthy in outlook (Zeena is obsessed with her diseases and “complications”), the characters reflect the countryside itself. It is this very sense of isolation that causes Ethan to marry Zeena—he fears being left alone, with silence—after his...
(The entire section is 636 words.)