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Ethan Frome is presented as a tragic figure; his tragic flaw, his weakness, is his loneliness, which gives rise to his fantasies. He dreams of escaping the dreariness of his farm and leading a life outside of Starkfield; he also dreams of having Mattie for his wife. But like a robot, he goes through life, trudging to the Post Office each day and allowing his sickly wife to control his fate. At the same time, he is aware of his real situation, his "responsibility" to Zeena and his farm. He sees his problem in terms of two poles; life with Mattie is endlessly sweet, and life with Zeena is completely sour and hopeless. Ethan does not know how to deal with the problem, for he has had limited experience; his life has been spent toiling on the farm. His one experience outside of Starkfield, while he briefly attended college, has, however, given him a taste of other possibilities in life. This awareness, together with his connection to Mattie, makes his bitter paralysis all the more tragic.
Ethan excites the reader's sympathies, for he is created as a pathetic character that has been dealt a difficult set of circumstances. He is basically a sensitive and intelligent man, but he is chained to his existence on the farm. He was forced to leave college to care for his aging and ailing parents. He married Zeena because he feared loneliness and felt he owed her something for her help with his parents. He has worked diligently on the farm, never enjoying leisure or social connection. But his circumstances have made him jealous, controlling, and weak. To satisfy his own selfish needs for communication and connection, he preys on the vulnerable and innocent Mattie Silver and wins her love. Then he refuses to stand up to his wife to protect Mattie. He allows her to be sent away, for he feels powerless against Zeena. In truth, he becomes his own hopelessness.
Edith Wharton does not sympathize with Zeena. She is depicted as a harpy who is old, ugly, bitter, and mean; but Zeena is a clever woman as well, and she easily manipulates Ethan to get her way. Even her silences are intentional and filled with meaning. It is never clearly stated, but is evident from her statements and actions that she knows about Mattie and Ethan. Since Mattie is a threat to her marriage and security, she takes matters into her own hands to safeguard her possessions, Ethan included.
Edith Wharton does not give much information on Zeena's early life. It is made very clear that her unhappiness, whatever might have spawned it, has settled in her body, in her endless ailments. Because of her suffering, whether real or imagined, she has grown hard and cold. She lives in a world of silence, and Ethan can never remember her laughing any time during their seven year marriage. The only time in the novel that her real emotions come out is over the breaking of the pickle dish. She becomes hysterical over the loss and carries the pieces around like a dead body; it is the picture of a truly pathetic character.
Zeena never changes in the novel. She started off as a mean, cold, pathetic figure, and she is the same way as she takes care of Mattie and Ethan at the end of the novel.
It is important to remember that the central story in Ethan Frome is developed through Ethan himself. This means that Mattie is basically seen through his thoughts and feelings. She is portrayed as lively, attractive, responsive, and innocent. She listens endlessly, makes no demands, and, in her reduced state, returns Ethan's affections.
The reader also gains factual information about Mattie from other sources than Ethan. She has arrived at the Frome farm one year previous to the story because, at the age of twenty, she has orphaned and is penniless. She has tried various jobs, but none of them has worked out because of her poor health. She has not asked her relatives for help, for she knows that her father has lost money for them; therefore, she comes to the farm to help with the chores and with Zeena so that she can have a place to live. Farm life, however, does not suit her. Born and raised in Stamford, she is not accustomed to the country or to manual labor.
Edith Wharton presents Mattie as a complex figure. She has a mind of her own, and in the first scene where Mattie appears outside the church after the dance, she shows she is capable of thinking for herself; she gauges the situation and decides not to ride home with Denis. She is obviously aware of Ethan's growing affection for her, and she encourages it, even though she does not openly express her own affection until the end of the novel. Her background, silence, and misery make it believable that she would be frightened of going away from Starkfield and trying to live on her own. She has no resources and no self-confidence. As a result, she is the one that suggests a mutual suicide for Ethan and herself. When the accident fails to accomplish its purpose, the reader is also prepared to accept the fact that Mattie has turned into a cripple that is a worse harpy than Zeena herself.