Ethan Frome is a man who is a victim of circumstance. From the very beginning of his life story, we find that he has endured obstacle after obstacle in aims to make a good life for himself, to no avail.
His father's death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.
From this description alone we can sense that Ethan is a man with potential. He understands the dimensional nature of things. He is not an unintelligent man and he is quite sensitive to his surroundings. Ethan Frome is basically the epitome of a good thing gone bad due to back luck, rather than to bad choices.
Ethan is also an incredible patient man. He is loyal, and he is appreciative. This is evident in the fact that he marries Zeena after she has taken care of Ethan's mother in her deathbed. Again, we find a man who may have had a myriad of choices but, because of his in-depth thinking, he chooses what seems radically logical rather than what is emotionally fit.
Left alone, after his father's accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no time for convival loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields.
Here we see that Ethan is given a terrible weight to carry after both his parents die. It is not only a financial and physical burden, but also a psychological burden that affects Ethan who, already, is a man with an overstimulated intellect. This same sense of pain brings him to marry Zeena, who eventually becomes as sickly as his mother had become and makes Ethan life truly a living prison.
However, Ethan makes a miscalculation in his judgement of Zeena. He believes that she would be as loyal to his needs as she had been to his mother. Ethan is obviously much younger (at least, emotionally) than Zeena, and would never be able to understand what a bad mistake it is to marry her . However, it is his marriage what sets the wheels in motion for his life and death.
When they married it was agreed that, as soon as he could straighten out the difficulties resulting from Mrs. Frome's long illness, they would sell the farm and saw-mill and try their luck in a large town. Ethan's love of nature did not take the form of a taste for agriculture. He had always wanted to be an engineer, and to live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and “fellows doing things.” ....and he felt sure that, with a “smart” wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he had made himself a place in it.
Ethan never makes a place for himself anywhere. He is a man whose fate had already made a niche for him before. He is simply a man whose life has taken a course of its own. His kindness and loyalty, unfortunately, only made his misery even worse. Accepting a suicide pact with Mattie is only a way to show that he is desperate.He only understands what is in front of him and he cannot make much of what comes afterwards. He will pay for this for the rest of his life.
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Ethan Frome is the novella's protagonist and tragic hero. Ethan's entire life is marked by poverty and his indecision and doubt. First he must give up his education to care for his ailing parents, then to tend to his sick wife. Ethan never stands up for himself or bucks social expectation. He suffers in agonizing silence as life and happiness pass him by. He sees a glimmer of hope for his future when he falls in love with Mattie Silver, yet he remains emotionally incapable of running away with her. When she suggests suicide at the end of the novella, Ethan originally agrees but flinches at the last moment, horrifically injuring himself and Mattie. His story may serve as a warning about the dangers of passivity and doubt in a cold, harsh world.
Zenobia "Zeena" Frome is Ethan's cousin and wife. Zeena first came to live on the Frome farm to help care for Ethan's parents. When they both died Ethan felt indebted to Zeena and asked her to stay as his wife. Originally he dreamed of moving together to a big city to start over, but the thought overwhelmed Zeena, whose sickliness eventually made such ideas impossible. Zeena's adult life is marked by her many illnesses. She manipulates Ethan through her illness, using her strange symptoms to maintain power over Ethan's future. As a result Zeena is seen as the ultimate tyrant, completely self-serving and negative.
In a direct contrast to Zeena, Mattie Silver, Zeena's young cousin, is the picture of beauty and health. She, much like Zeena, arrives in Starkfield to care for an ailing relative. Unlike Zeena, however, Mattie is a romantic, more interested in nature and daydreaming than medicine or homemaking. She forms a strong bond with Ethan, much to Zeena's disliking. When Zeena cruelly kicks her out of the house, Mattie has nowhere to turn and is truly alone. Desperate she kisses Ethan, declares her love for him, and suggests suicide. Given her emotional state, however, it's unclear whether Mattie is desperate to be with Ethan or simply desperate not to be left alone.