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.