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The uselessness of poverty, mean spiritedness, and grim silence are all present in the tragedy of Ethan Frome. The story takes place in a stark winter landscape, where the lives of all the characters are constricted. At each turn the circumstances of rural poverty, mixed with the bitterness of isolation and failure, lead the main characters to lives of tragic resignation. As a result of their miserable existence, they grow hard and mean-spirited, rarely communicating except with complaints and anger. The townsfolk tend to avoid them and are even reluctant to speak freely of the ruined lives of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena. The tragedy of their existence is appropriately captured in their physical beings. Mattie is paralyzed, and Ethan is a shriveled, silent man whose face is set in grim despair.
Although tragedy conquers all in Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton shows how love can positively color even the gloomiest setting, as shown through Ethan and Mattie. The couple has genuine affection for one another, and when they are alone together, they forget their miserable existence and are happy for the moment, as seen in the memory of the picnic they share in the woods.
The limits of imagination are also illustrated throughout the story. Mattie and Ethan see only one way out of their dilemma and decide to commit suicide. Zeena and Ethan are married because he could not imagine being alone in the world and she was conveniently available. Zeena uses her imagination to deal with her unhappiness by coming up with a variety of physical illnesses. Even the minor characters, the inhabitants of Starkfield who comment on Ethan's condition, have very limited views of human existence. Their lack of imagination dooms each of the characters to a tragic existence.
Ethan Frome is a very dismal story that tells about the terrible tragedy of three lives. Throughout the novel, Edith Wharton describes the spiraling hopelessness of poverty, isolation, and small-mindedness Circumstances and personality flaws eventually defeat Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena..