Although the novel’s introductory and concluding passages are told from the narrator’s point of view, the bulk of the novel unfolds from Ethan Frome’s perspective and centers on his actions. Whereas the other characters in the narrative remain opaque, we are allowed access to all of Ethan’s thoughts as his life approaches a crisis. He can be seen as the protagonist of the story. In spite of the fact that Ethan contemplates an adulterous affair, Wharton renders him a generally sympathetic character by making extreme efforts to depict his wife, Zeena, as an appallingly unsympathetic figure. Even if we don’t condone Ethan’s desire for another woman, we understand his motivations. We never doubt his fundamental goodness. Ethan’s illicit passion for Mattie Silver coexists with a moral sense strong enough to keep him from going beyond a few embraces and kisses.
Though sympathetic, Ethan remains a frustrating main character. Wharton’s novel emphasizes two themes: the conflict between passion and social convention, and the constricting effects that a harsh winter climate can have on the human spirit. These themes almost seem to conspire to make Ethan a passive, unhappy victim of circumstance, weighed down by his duty to his wife, his bitter existence as a poor farmer, and the strain that Starkfield’s frozen landscape places on his soul. “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” an old local tells the narrator. This assessment seems to be Wharton’s epitaph for her protagonist, who is forced—like the original Ethan Frome and his wife, Endurance, in the graveyard—to endure rather than to act. His entire life becomes a series of dreams destroyed by circumstance. Zeena’s illness and his poverty crush his desire for wider horizons, which we see in his hope to leave Starkfield and in his interest in chemistry and engineering. His desire for Mattie is likewise crushed by his inability either to break free of Zeena or to muster the courage to defy convention and risk ruin.
Ethan is a sensitive man, a lover of nature, and a basically decent person, but he lacks emotional strength and so is mastered by circumstances. It is appropriate, then, that his only bold decision in the entire novel is to commit suicide—a decision that Mattie pushes on him and thus, in fact, contains little courage. Rather, his final, mad sled ride to disaster constitutes the ultimate expression of passivity: unable to face the consequences of any decision, he elects to attempt to escape all decisions forever.
Though Zeena is not as rounded a character as her husband, the negative aspects of her personality emerge quite clearly, making her seem like the novel’s villain. While she is technically the victim of Ethan’s plans to commit adultery, the reader comes to sympathize much more with Ethan, because he feels imprisoned in his marriage to the sickly and shrewish Zeena.
Wharton’s physical descriptions make Zeena seem old and unfeminine. Furthermore, Zeena speaks only in a complaining whine, and all her actions seem calculated to be as vindictive as possible. Her illness might make some of this crotchety behavior forgivable, but she so relishes her role as a sufferer that the reader suspects her of hypochondria, or at least of exaggeration. Her only talent is caring for the sick, and the only time she displays any vitality or sense of purpose is when administering to Ethan and Mattie at the end of the novel. One imagines her taking a perverse delight in Ethan and Mattie’s suffering, since she knows that they attempted to kill themselves to escape her. It is important to note, however, that all of Zeena’s faults are relayed from Ethan’s point of view, which, given his passion for Mattie, is far from impartial.
Mattie’s character constitutes the hinge on which the plot of Ethan Frome turns. All of the story’s events are set in motion by her presence in the Frome household. Yet we glimpse Mattie, as we glimpse Zeena, only through Ethan’s eyes, and his perception of her is skewed by his passion. With her grace, beauty, and vitality, she obviously embodies everything that he feels Zeena has denied him, and so becomes the focus of his aborted rebellion against his unhappy life. Mattie is distinguished by little other than the red decoration she wears, which symbolizes both passion and transgression.
Until the very end, we cannot even be certain that Mattie reciprocates Ethan’s feelings for her. When, at the climax of the novel, Mattie’s true self does shine through, we see her as an impulsive, melodramatic young woman, more adolescent than adult. Her most active deed of self-definition is persuading Ethan to attempt suicide, which reveals her as rather immature, ready to give in to whatever passionate (and foolish) thoughts enter her head. Yet, because the text has so strongly established Mattie as the horrid Zeena’s polar opposite, we forgive her childish delight in melodrama. Even in her recklessness, Mattie seems preferable to the shrewish, complaining, curmudgeonly Zeena: it is better that Ethan die a quick death with Mattie, we feel, than a slow one with Zeena. Nevertheless, one cannot help but suspect that Mattie may not be quite worth the passion that Ethan directs her way, and that the rebellion and escape she represents are more important than the pretty, flighty, and slightly absentminded girl she actually is.