The protagonist of the story, Ethan is a farmer whose family has lived and died on the same Massachusetts farm for generations. A sensitive figure, Ethan has a deep, almost mystical appreciation of nature, and he feels a strong connection to the youth, beauty, and vital spirit of Mattie Silver, his wife’s cousin. However, he ultimately lacks the inner strength necessary to escape the oppressive forces of convention, climate, and his sickly wife.
Ethan’s sickly wife, more commonly known as “Zeena.” She comes across as prematurely aged, caustic in temperament, prone to alternating fits of silence and rage, and utterly unattractive, making her the novel’s least sympathetic figure. She is acutely interested in the treatment of her own illness, displaying a degree of hypochondria (imagined illness or minor symptoms secretly relished and exaggerated by the patient). Despite Zeena’s apparent physical weakness, she, not Ethan, holds the dominant position in their household.
Zeena’s cousin, who comes to assist the Fromes with their domestic tasks. Attractive, young, and energetic, Mattie becomes the object of Ethan’s affection, and reciprocates his infatuation. Because the reader sees Mattie only through Ethan’s own lovesick eyes, Mattie never truly emerges as a well-rounded character. She often seems more a focus for Ethan’s rebellion against Zeena and Starkfield than an actual flesh-and-blood person with both strengths and weaknesses.
Although he recounts the story’s events, the narrator (an engineer by profession) plays no part in the story itself. That he remains nameless highlights the thinness of his character. As a stranger to Starkfield, he views Ethan Frome’s story with fresh eyes and operates as a conduit between the closely guarded story of Frome’s tragedy and the reader in the world outside the novel.
The son of Starkfield’s rich Irish grocer, Michael Eady, and sometime-suitor of Mattie Silver. Denis is the focus of Ethan’s jealousy in the novel’s early chapters, before Ethan learns of Mattie’s true feelings.
Widow of Ned Hale and landlady to the unnamed narrator. The narrator describes Mrs. Hale as more refined and educated than most of her neighbors. Although she was once intimate with the Fromes, she hesitates to discuss their plight with her inquisitive lodger.
Ruth Varnum’s fiancé and later her husband. Ned and Ruth’s romance contrasts with the fruitless love of Ethan and Mattie. Ned has died by the time the narrator comes to Starkfield.
Ned’s father, Andrew Hale is an amiable builder involved in regular business dealings with the young Ethan. When Ethan requests that Hale extend him an advance on a lumber load, Hale is forced to politely refuse, citing his own financial constraints. Nevertheless, Ethan (mistakenly) continues to regard him as a possible source of a loan.
Ned’s mother and Andrew’s wife, Mrs. Hale extends an unexpected degree of warmth to Ethan after encountering him by chance one winter afternoon. Her kindness and praise for his dedication to Zeena lead Ethan to reevaluate his decision to borrow money from Andrew Hale to elope with Mattie.
The hired man on the Frome farm. Powell’s main duty is to assist Ethan in the cutting, loading, and hauling of lumber. Markedly reticent, Powell is sensitive to the tensions between the Fromes but loath to involve himself in them.
A former stage-driver and town gossip. Gow provides the narrator with a scattering of details about Ethan Frome’s life and later suggests that the narrator hire Ethan as a driver, paving the way for the relationship through which the narrator learns Ethan’s story.