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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ethan Frome!