The protagonist of the story, Ethan is a silent, brooding man who has kept his emotional and psychological sorrow and suffering hidden from the public eye for years. At the story's start, Ethan is 52 years old, and the narrator of the story is fascinated by both the power and lameness of Ethan's tall, sturdy frame. Though the townspeople generally think of him as an amiable but quiet farmer who has simply suffered through financial troubles after his parents' death, Ethan is, in fact, an intellectual who shares with the narrator an interest in scientific research. After generously driving him to work each day in his sled, Ethan welcomes him into his home for a night, where the narrator finally becomes acquainted with the details of Ethan's tragic life.
When Ethan was 27 years old, he fell in love with his sickly wife Zeena's young cousin, Mattie Silver. Ethan feels too indebted to Zeena for caring for his own dying mother that he does not act upon his feelings for her cousin, but when Zeena sends Mattie away, Ethan finally confesses to Mattie his suppressed love for her and takes her on a suicidal sled ride so that neither of them will have to live without the other. However, the story, along with the sled, takes a nasty turn on that fateful suicide ride, for both Ethan and Mattie survive the tragic "smash-up," and even though both live, some of the townspeople wonder whether it might have been better for them to die. After the accident, Ethan continues to live on the dilapidated Frome farm with Zeena and Mattie for what Wharton suggests will be a lifetime of stagnancy and despondency.
Nameless for the entirety of the novella, the narrator parallels the role of the curious reader and attempts to piece together the fascinating story of Ethan Frome's life. At the beginning of the story, he asks Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Varnum about Ethan's past and is intrigued by their vague memories of the smash-up. A labor negotiator who is stuck in Starkfield for the winter, the narrator gladly accepts rides from Ethan on his sled to and from work, and he spends a night at the Frome farm after a night of particularly bad weather. After meeting Zeena and Mattie in Ethan's depressing home, he recounts his night to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Varnum, who are both surprised to hear that Ethan had welcomed him into his home.
Ethan's querulous, bitter, cynical, and suspicious wife, Zeena seems to be, from the outset, the story's antagonist. The annoying little roadblock to Ethan and Mattie's road to happiness, Zeena is a hypochondriac who uses the little money that Ethan squeezes from the Frome farm for expensive medical remedies to cure the nonexistent illnesses that ail her. The jealous Zeena, who is seven years older than her husband, suspects that Ethan has fallen in love with Mattie and consistently makes snide comments about Ethan's change in appearance and manners (i.e. his newly acquired daily habit of shaving) since Mattie's arrival on the farm. Never afraid to speak her mind, Zeena always reminds Ethan of his debt to her because she had nursed his dying mother, and she belittles the young Mattie and emphasizes her domestic incompetence. Ethan had initially married her because of her efficiency; although she later becomes a hypochondriac during their marriage, she had been a wonderfully skilled nurse for his mother, and he had been so terrified of the prospect of remaining alone after his parents' death that he had proposed to her.
After marrying Ethan, however, Zeena's hypochondriac nature emerges, and she refuses to lift a finger around the house while Ethan slaves to keep the farm afloat and his finances solvent enough to take care of her many demands. In fact, at a doctor's suggestion, she sends away Mattie, her own cousin, because she wishes to employ a hired girl who will help her to improve her health by making sure that Zeena does absolutely no housework. After Ethan and Mattie's tragic crash, however, Zeena undergoes a complete character transformation that formulates the dramatic plot twist at the end of the novel: Mattie, badly injured after the smash-up, has assumed Zeena's position of querulous complaining, and Zeena has taken on the role of nursing both Mattie and Ethan.
Mattie is the object of Ethan's hidden passion and seems to be the youthful antithesis to Zeena's cynicism and sarcasm. The daughter of Zeena's cousin, a man who made a living out of crime and used his relatives' money for illegal purposes, Mattie has struggled to stay afloat after her parents' death. With no other relatives to turn to, Mattie comes to live with Zeena and Ethan to serve as their housekeeper so that the sickly Zeena will not have to work in the house.
The young, optimistic Mattie quickly catches Ethan's eye with her beauty and energy, and even though her domestic incompetence is the constant object of Zeena's stinging criticism, she dutifully strives throughout the entire book to please her and improve her housekeeping habits. When Mattie attends dances in the town, Ethan walks her back to the farm, and Ethan is mesmerized by her vitality and is struck by the contrast between the vibrant, talkative Mattie and the silent, sarcastic Zeena. Perhaps realizing the growing intimacy between Ethan and Mattie, Zeena mentions to Ethan the possibility of Mattie's marriage to the ambitious young Denis Eady and eventually employs a hired girl to replace Mattie. As Ethan drives Mattie to the station to say good-bye, the two confess their long-suppressed love for each other, and Mattie suggests a suicidal sled ride that will guarantee that they will not have to leave each other and live separate lives of loneliness and separation. However, the suicide attempt fails, and Mattie falls into the same role of the sickly, complaining invalid that Zeena had played.
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