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.