In Ethan Frome, what makes Ethan a tragic hero?

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Ethan Frome is a tragic hero because of the way his life turned out.

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Ethan's tragedy lies in what his life could have become had he been able to free himself from Starkfield, first as a very young man and then later at the age of 28. When he was very young, Ethan was intellectually curious and full of dreams; he was very sociable....

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He wanted to move away from tiny, isolated Starkfield to live in a busy city where life was exciting and full of possibilities. This was not to be, for Ethan's adult life would be largely determined by chance and circumstance.

He was born into poverty, the only child of farm people who worked hard but never got ahead financially. The Frome farm provided only a bare existence, but it was the family farm handed down through generations. Ethan was tied to the farm by tradition and by responsibility. When his father died and his mother became ill, he had to give up school and return. It never occurred to him he had a choice.

The farm was located miles from Starkfield, a small New England village. When winter came, those who lived on outlying farms were sentenced to months of cold, silent isolation by the heavy snowfalls that descended every year. Transportation was crude; roads were impassable. Loneliness arrived along with the blizzards. It was his fear of the overwhelming loneliness that prompted Ethan to marry Zeena after his mother died. He could not bear to spend a winter alone on the farm. If his mother had died in the spring, Ethan later realized, he would not have married Zeena. The timing of his mother's death effectively determined the remainder of Ethan's life.

Through chance and circumstance, Ethan meets Mattie Silver. She just happened to be available to come to care for the sickly Zeena because of her own difficult family circumstances. Once Mattie comes into Ethan's life, the tragedy of what his life had become intensifies. Had he never met Mattie, Ethan most likely would have lived out his life, numb to his own misery, and died to be buried next to his wife in the Frome family cemetery. After loving Mattie, though, Ethan cannot endure the thought of living as he had lived before her arrival. Again, chance and circumstance determine his fate. He is too poor to provide for Zeena and take Mattie away, and his suicide attempt fails when he does not succeed in driving the sled directly into the big elm tree. Consequently, he is crippled, Mattie is paralyzed, and Zeena becomes her caretaker. The three of them remain trapped together on the farm.

Ethan's tragedy is that his life was wasted; the future he could have had was unfilled. All he could have become was lost. He found love, but he found it too late, and the memory of the girl Mattie had once been surely tortured him. His spirit became as cold and barren as the Starkfield winters. Heroically, some would say, Ethan struggled against forces he could not defeat, and once he was defeated, he endured.

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In Ethan Frome, how did Ethan's plight, the story's setting, and his relationships with Zeena and Mattie work to make him a tragic hero?

This is an interesting question, since the novel is often interpreted as a good example of determinism, seeing Ethan as a victim, rather than a hero--someone whose life is determined by forces of nature and society beyond his control.  

However, he does model the classic tragic hero in some respects. As a young man, Ethan did not enjoy power or high social position, as do classic tragic heroes, but he was a good man, remarkable in several ways. Ethan was young, strong, and very intelligent. He was curious and inquisitive by nature and longed for an education. Sociable by nature, Ethan dreamed of living a larger life than Starkfield could offer, one of excitement and fulfillment. Therefore, he left Starkfield to pursue his dreams. 

When interpreted as a tragic hero, Ethan has a fatal character flaw that causes his downfall and destroys his life. It is personal insecurity. When Ethan left school to come back to Starkfield to care for his sick parents, his plans were interrupted, but his dreams were still within reach.

The turning point in Ethan's life, the moment when his tragic fate is sealed, does not occur until he marries Zeena. After his parents' were both dead, Ethan could have sold the farm and returned to his life in the outside world. He did not. Instead, he marries Zeena, a decision dictated by the flaw in his own character. Ethan marries to keep Zeena respectably under his roof only because he doubts his ability to survive the loneliness of living in the isolated farm house throughout the long and brutal New England winter. Ethan's personal insecurity--his lack of faith in himself--sets into motion his downfall and eventual destruction.

When Mattie comes into his life, Ethan then struggles to reverse his fate, as do all tragic heroes. He tries desperately to effect his and Mattie's escape from Starkfield; when that fails, he steers their sled into the big elm, trying to effect their escape from living lives without each other. He fails in both attempts, and he is destroyed. The terrible irony for Ethan as a tragic hero is that unlike other tragic heroes, he does not die a physical death, experiencing instead a spiritual death as he drags himself, both literally and figuratively, through the remainder of his tragic life.

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