Character Analysis in Ethan Frome
Ethan Frome: Protagonist of the novel, Ethan is a miserable, passive man weighed down by his inability to contend with unfortunate circumstances. Though Zeena complains and criticizes, Ethan prefers to suffer in silence, leading to his attraction to the upbeat Mattie. While Ethan’s attraction to Mattie is dangerous and frowned upon, he is unable to resist her charm. At the same time, he is repeatedly unable to break his wife’s hold over him, waffling between leaving with Mattie and staying with Zeena. His struggle between his obligations and desires is a constant conflict throughout the novella.
Zeena Frome: Wife to Ethan, Zeena is often sick and quarrelsome. At the beginning of the novella she suspects Ethan’s infatuation with Mattie and consequently resents Mattie’s presence. She plans to send Mattie away, which spurs Ethan and Mattie’s suicide pact. Despite Zeena’s infirmity, she remains the dominant one in the marriage through her combative words, constant demeaning Ethan and overspending on doctor’s visits. Her only redeeming quality is her willingness to take care of the injured Mattie and Ethan.
Mattie Silver: Although Zeena’s cousin, Mattie is unlike her in most respects. Beautiful and cheerful, Mattie is the antithesis of Zeena, which accounts for Ethan’s attraction to her. She is distinguished by her red scarf and ribbon, a color typically used to portray both passion and rule breaking. By the end of the novella, Mattie is revealed to be impulsive and passionate to a fault, leading to choices that doom the trio to a long, bitter life.
Character Analysis Examples in Ethan Frome:
"“It used to.”..." See in text (Prologue)
Note that Ethan’s declaration that he used to be interested in engineering and technology suggests a kind of defeated resolve. He may have at one time held onto grand ambitions outside of Starkfield, Massachusetts, but he is frozen in all senses of the term, and has largely accepted this.
"Zenobia..." See in text (Prologue)
Zeena’s full name might be an allusion to Zenobia, the queen of the Palmyrene Empire in 3rd-century Syria CE. Zenobia was most known for leading a revolt against the Roman Empire and infamous for her swift decision-making without considering the concerns of Rome. The name echoes the portrayal of Wharton’s Zeena as being the primary decision-maker in her marriage, often with a complete disregard for Ethan’s wishes.
"insubstantial shade..." See in text (Chapter I)
Recall that the moments that Ethan spends with Mattie Silver, as well as Mattie Silver herself, are often described using color and light. In this instance, Ethan describes Zeena as having “faded into an insubstantial shade.” The term “insubstantial” means “intangible” or “illusory.” In contrast to Zeena, Ethan correlates Mattie with the reality that he desires and pushes Zeena into the background of his mind as something less than wholly real.
"not disposed to take the matter seriously..." See in text (Chapter I)
Mattie’s work ethic is not quite up to par for Zeena, who is associated with strictness, work, and duty while Mattie’s attitude towards her work is described as “forgetful and dreamy.” By comparing Zeena and Mattie, Wharton sets the reader up to feel the inner conflict that Ethan feels: should he stay dutiful to his wife or leave her for passion or “freedom”?
"Denis Eady was the son of Michael Eady..." See in text (Chapter I)
Denis Eady is one of the most successful businessmen in town. (He has inherited the grocery store that his father opened.) For this reason, Denis mirrors what Ethan could have been had Ethan finished his education as he desired. Ethan is envious of Denis for his riches, but he is also averse to the arrogance that these riches have brought Denis, as indicated by his “look of almost impudent ownership” of the woman in the red scarf.
"sardonically reflected..." See in text (Chapter I)
The word “sardonically” means “bitterly” or “mockingly.” In this case, Ethan is internally scorning his wife both for her general lack of consideration and aversion to “amusement” and entertainment. Ethan expresses, for the first time, a kind of discontent with his marriage.
"abandoned himself to these dreams...." See in text (Chapter II)
Recall that Ethan had to end his studies prematurely and return to Starkfield to care for his dying father;in other words, he had to “abandon his dreams.” Part of Mattie’s allure for Ethan is that he associates Mattie with the fantastical—with dreams and aspirations. When Ethan says he “abandoned himself” in this fantasy, he is essentially leaving the “Starkfield Ethan” behind.
"But now all desire for change had vanished..." See in text (Chapter II)
After seeing the gravestones and thinking about joining them, Ethan finally feels free when he envisions a distant future in which Mattie dies in Starkfield by his side. Note too that this vision gives him “a warm sense of continuance,” something that might seem a bit odd considering he is imagining his own death. Even if Ethan were to confess his love affair and divorce Zeena, divorce was still taboo during this time. Ethan and Mattie’s affair is confined to secrecy and to the grave.
"Ethan's clearest notion was that he had to pay five dollars for it..." See in text (Chapter III)
Ethan associates his wife with financial burden here. This line stands out because of its placement at the end of Ethan’s critique of Zeena’s appearance. Though Ethan notes a positive change in Zeena’s appearance, the most prominent thought in his mind is the amount of money that he had to give her for this bonnet. Thus, reader are set up to feel a bit of sympathy for Zeena—nothing she does is going to remind Ethan of anything other than her “burden” on his wallet and his life in general.
"freedom to find fault without much risk of losing her..." See in text (Chapter III)
Ethan’s bias again reveals itself here. Ethan has stated before that Mattie is not very good at her job, but since this is a flashback of a time before Mattie was hired, Zeena would not have known she was a bad worker. Ethan’s assumption that Zeena hired Mattie to “find fault without the risk of losing her” may be true, but we do not get Zeena’s perspective. This bias places the reader in the mindset of Ethan’s guilty conscience as he attempts to justify his actions.
"asthmatic breathing..." See in text (Chapter III)
Note the correlation between asthma (a medical condition of the lungs that makes it difficult to breath) and Zeena. Ethan associates Zeena with health problems, illness, and death in contrast with the warmth and liveliness he associates with Mattie. Emphasizing the sound of Zeena’s “asthmatic breathing” in particular not only follows this association, but also suggests that Ethan regards his marriage as suffocating.
"She stood just as Zeena had stood..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Since Zeena is away for the night, recall that earlier Ethan mentioned that the house felt more like a home in “Zeena’s absence.” By comparing Mattie and Zeena’s similarities here, it is almost as if Ethan has replaced Zeena with Mattie in his mind. Ethan has also imagined that in her absence he and Mattie will sit by the stove “like a married couple.” Wharton, then, is giving Mattie and Ethan an opportunity to “play house.”
"dread of being left alone..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Ethan is initially infatuated with Zeena for her ability to provide care for his mother, her “efficiency,” and for the noise she brings back into the now quiet house. However, Ethan states that after his mother died he asked Zeena to stay with him on the farm “before he knew what he was doing” for “dread of being left alone.” Ethan later notes that he often wondered if he would have done so “if his mother had died in spring instead of winter.” The cold winter and the loss of his family put Ethan in a lonely, vulnerable state and Zeena provides a companionship that eases Ethan’s loneliness. Considering this, we get the sense that Zeena could have been anyone.
"keeping to himself and not being much of a hand at a good time, he had secretly gloried in being clapped on the back and hailed as “Old Ethe” or “Old Stiff”; and the cessation of such familiarities had increased the chill of his return to Starkfield..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Not only does Starkfield confine Ethan to a job that does not allow him to exercise his love of engineering, but it also stifles his “spark of sociability” as well. While Ethan notes that this “spark” is still hibernating in him, he remembers Worcester as a place that had allowed and inspired him to pursue his intellectual interests, which brought him joy.
"watching them with narrowed eyes...." See in text (Chapter V)
Ethan’s perceiving the cat “watching them with narrowed eyes” allows readers to sense his anxieties about his love affair. The choice of the wording contributes to a tone of suspicion and places us into Ethan’s paranoid state. For Ethan, the cat is not only aware of their “unusual movements,” but it also sits in Zeena’s chair—almost as if the cat is “on her side” rather than the side of Mattie, “the intruder.”
"But the sorrel's not in the barn!..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Here, Wharton makes all of Ethan’s emotions clear. Ethan is surprised at Zeena’s arrival, to the point of helpless denial. Where he had thought that Zeena would not see the broken dish when he sees the empty barn, we witness his hopes crashing down as he comes to the realization that Zeena might find out that the pickle-dish had been broken—or already has.
"he was glad now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture..." See in text (Chapter VI)
Now that it is morning and his alone time with Mattie has ended, Ethan looks back at the night and feels “glad now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture” of the “vision of what life at her side might be.” In other words, Ethan is glad that he “had not even touched her hand,” now that he is returning to “reality.” He also notes that Mattie “knew what had restrained him,” which we can infer is his duty to his wife.
"pickle-dish up there o’ purpose when we was married, and it's never been down since, ’cept for the spring cleaning, and then I always lifted it with my own hands, so's ’t it shouldn't get broke...." See in text (Chapter VII)
We have never seen Zeena cry before and she has always been painted as a stoic person. However, Wharton deliberately shows Zeena’s soft-side here. Zeena cherished that pickle-dish because it was a wedding gift. She took such good care of it that she did not even move it except “for the spring cleaning.” Zeena is desperate for an answer about who broke it, not only because she cherishes it so much, but also because it means that someone wanted to use it for a special occasion.
"woman who at every turn had barred his way..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Ethan blames Zeena for dooming him to the poor farm life that he lives, but we know that even Ethan has admitted that his father’s illness was what ultimately decided his career path. Additionally, Zeena had been planning to leave after Ethan’s mother passed away, but Ethan made the rash decision to marry Zeena and she obliged. Ethan wants to blame his feelings of imprisonment on Zeena, but she is not the cause of Ethan’s dissatisfaction or circumstances.
"Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. He had foreseen an immediate demand for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources...." See in text (Chapter VII)
Ethan has been concerned with money since his wife mentioned the possibility of surgery. Ethan stated earlier that he was thankful, due to “motives of economy,” that Zeena dismissed the idea of medical operations because she believed them to be “indelicate.” Here, Ethan is still extremely concerned about finances, but we get the overwhelming sense that he resents Zeena for the potential expense. Ethan “no longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed seriousness of her state” but instead “saw it as a plot” to “foist on him the cost of a servant” that could aid Zeena in her sickness.
"between two extremities of feeling..." See in text (Chapter VII)
We are only really given one of the “extremities of feeling” here, and that is “compassion.” However, Ethan states that although he had two predominant emotions, “for the moment compassion prevailed.” This gives us the sense that the other emotion might be in opposition, or at least in large contrast, to compassion
"affability..." See in text (Chapter VII)
To show “a sign of affability” is to show “agreeability” or “congeniality.” It suggests that one is good-natured in their intentions. When Zeena uses Mattie’s nickname “Matt” here, it is one of the first times that we witness Zeena being nice to Mattie. Although Mattie is related to Zeena, Zeena has never shown her this kind of familial affection—or at least we have not seen it as readers. Zeena might be more open about showing her affection because she feels guilty about “kicking her out.”
"almshouse..." See in text (Chapter VII)
An “almshouse” is a house that is built for poor, sick, or elderly people to live in. Zeena comments that she can just go live there because, after all, “there’s been Fromes there afore now.” She is not being serious, and she said in order to “taunt” Ethan during their fight.
"consecrated formula,..." See in text (Chapter VII)
“Consecrated” means “something that has been declared sacred.” In Ethan’s mind, while the traditional routine is confining and suffocating at times, it also offers him a sense of routine. Zeena’s refusing supper disrupts this routine by not upholding her part of the “sacred formula.” If Ethan feels the pressure of performing traditional routines in order to follow his “duties,” Zeena should too.
"It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale...." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Ethan feels that most people in Starkfield “were either indifferent to his troubles” or figured his troubles were no worse than anyone else’s in his situation. However, Mrs. Hale states, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” after which Ethan notes that he immediately “felt less alone with his misery.” Ethan has been searching for some kind of recognition or acknowledgement of his sacrifices in life, because he has not received much of this, neither from Zeena nor Mattie. Zeena simply reminds Ethan of her own sacrifices and he cannot seek validation from Mattie on this subject because she is a cause of financial burden. Mrs. Hale finally says what Ethan wants to hear.
"one ray of light was to be extinguished..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Since Zeena has told Mattie to leave so that she can have room for a more helpful caregiver, we can infer that the “ray of light” that Ethan is talking about here is Mattie. Not only will Mattie no longer be living with the Fromes, but any chance for Ethan and Mattie going out West and starting a life together is gone.
"ebullition..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
The term “ebullition” is the “action of bubbling or boiling.” Note that this is the second time Ethan has meant to ask the Hale’s for money. The first time, Ethan was too prideful to state why he needed the money. However, this time Ethan’s pride is overtaken by desperation as he hopes that he can use the money to buy a ticket out West for him and Mattie.
"So ’t we'll never come up any more..." See in text (Chapter IX)
Mattie asks Ethan to take her sledding and deliberately crash into the big elm tree so that they can die together rather than go on living apart. Note the tone of swiftness and darkness here as well. This is a decision that has been made hastily and a plea that has been asked in desperation. Recall that Mattie has nowhere to go and no plans in order for how she is going to live. Part of her haste may be that she is terrified of what comes next and has made the impulsive decision to take her life. Mattie might not want to have time to think this over more.
"He's that proud he don't even like his oldest friends to go there..." See in text (Epilogue)
We can infer that the source of Ethan’s shame might be coming from a few places. For one, the town has heard about what happened to Ethan and Mattie. While we do not know whether people know for certain that there was an affair, Mrs. Hale states that the people of Starkfield “could never rightly tell what she and Ethan were doing that night coating.” If anything, there is certainly an air of wonder and suspicion and Ethan probably does not want to entertain these wonderings. Another source of Ethan’s embarrassment about his home is that it is dilapidated from the lack of funds due to illness and truly shows the extent of his poverty.
"disease of the spine..." See in text (Epilogue)
This passage describes Mattie as having a “witch-like stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives.” We can infer that “disease of the spine” means that the crash has left Mattie paralyzed. Consider also, the drastic change in the description of Mattie’s appearance otherwise. She has “hair as grey” as Zeena, “her face as bloodless as shrivelled,” and “swarthy shadows” which “sharpen” her nose. Recall how Mattie was described before, always with bright and warm colors that illustrated her lively nature. This spark is gone; she is as “grey” as Zeena now.