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Ethan Frome tells the story of a man of misfortune, a poor New Englander who had hopes as a young man of living a life away from the constraints of farming. When Ethan's parents fall ill and die, he marries an older cousin, Zenobia; it is an unhappy marriage from the start. When a young cousin of Zenobia comes to live at the farm, Ethan develops a strong and doomed attachment to her.
Both Ethan and Mattie can be seen as the story's protagonists. Ethan is a man of feeling and desire, blown around by circumstance. Mattie is a lively, healthy girl, also subject to limited prospects. Both could be described as "weak," but are nonetheless passionate and caring. The central story takes place, however, in Ethan's consciousness.
Zeena Frome is clearly posed as the story's antagonist. Zeena, who is bitter, hard and sickly, takes her pain out on those around her, especially Ethan and Mattie. It is suggested that her ailments are psychosomatic and that her own difficult circumstances have led to her mean personality. Poverty and the small-mindedness that surround Ethan can also be considered antagonists.
When it becomes clear that Mattie must leave the Frome household, Ethan drives her to town. On the way they stop to take a long-promised sled ride. The two are frantic at parting and make a suicide pact to run the speeding sled into an elm tree. They both survive the accident, horribly maimed, and continue to live in dire rural poverty under the watchful eye of Zeena.
The story ends in tragedy. Ethan and Mattie try to kill themselves in a sled accident, but they survive to live a miserable, maimed existence in the presence of Zeena. During a terrible snowstorm, the narrator visits the Frome household, some twenty-four years after the accident. He witnesses the shriveled existence of the three characters. Mattie has turned into a harpy and Ethan into a half-shriveled and bitter man. Zeena "takes care" of the house and Mattie, and is herself much reduced by a hard life of endless caretaking.