All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others. For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and then stopped.
“You’re—you’re not coming down?” he said in a bewildered voice.
This passage from Chapter VII makes clear that Ethan is a physically strong man, but, as the reader comes to understand over the course of the novel, he lacks force of personality. Zeena has just announced her intention to expel Mattie from the house; Ethan’s consequent fury achieves such heights that a definitive outburst between him and his wife now seems inevitable. His clenched fist even hints at potential physical violence. Yet these emotions ultimately lead nowhere, as his fury dissipates into a “bewildered voice,” a sharp contrast to his inner “flame of hate.” Ethan may be filled with emotional turmoil, but he ultimately proves weaker than his wife; she can impose her will upon him as she likes, and he cannot muster the boldness necessary to oppose her.
For this reason, Ethan Frome is in many ways a story of inaction, of an affair that doesn’t happen. Ethan’s only proactive move is his attempted suicide, which is more an expression of cowardice than of true courage. Ethan sees Zeena as the cause of his thwarted dreams and recurring failures, believing them to “take shape before him” in the figure of his wife. In many ways, Zeena is indeed responsible for much of Ethan’s suffering: shrewd, calculating, manipulative, and domineering, she exerts an active control over her husband. Yet Ethan may also prove too eager to place the blame entirely on his wife: Zeena becomes more of an excuse for his inaction than its real cause.