There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it’s a pity she did . . . if [Mattie] ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ’cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.
These words, the last lines of Ethan Frome, are spoken by Mrs. Hale as she discusses the state of affairs in the Frome household since the sledding disaster. Her comment seals the mood of brutal despair permeating the conclusion, as we realize the full horror of Ethan’s life. He is trapped not only with Zeena but with a Mattie who has been transformed into a handicapped copy of his wife, in a dilapidated farmhouse buried under a perpetual winter. The comparison between the Fromes’ life and the corpses’ existence in the graveyard emphasizes certain aspects of Ethan’s fate: it underlines the permanence of his situation, implying that his imprisonment is irreversi-ble, like death.
The allusion to the gravestone is the second in the book: the first reference comes in the form of a detailed description of the stone and Ethan’s reaction to it. There, we learn that the stone marks the graves of one Ethan Frome and his wife, named Endurance. Recalling this information, we realize that for Ethan himself, endurance is all that remains, now that his attempt at rebellion has failed.
Although Mrs. Hale speaks of Ethan as if he had died (“if [Mattie] ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived”), she is of course implying that he has in fact met a worse fate—that he is experiencing death in life. Indeed, if there is one thing more fearsome than death, it is a living death: with bitter irony Mrs. Hale points out that the women in the graveyard at least hold their tongues, implicitly contrasting this silence to the whining that fills the Frome household. With this observation, then, she forces one last tragic realization: while there may seem to be little difference between corporeal death and living death, actual death contains the benefit of peace, of a final state of rest. A living death—Ethan’s tragic fate—continues to torment the soul for years.