Ethan Frome: A Tragic Tale of Duty, Isolation, and Unfulfilled Desires

Ethan Frome (1911) by Edith Wharton


  • Love
  • Poverty and Conditions on the Countryside
  • Moral Values and Societal Rules
  • Conflict Between Individual Desires and Community Duty
  • Fate (Heredity and Environment), Determinism, Choices, and Lack of Free Will
  • Conflict Between Illusion and Reality
  • Failure of Communication
  • Isolation and the Impact of Winter
  • Gender Issues and Marriage

Ethan’s Trapped Existence:

Ethan Frome finds himself unable to escape his isolated community. Despite attending college, he returns due to family obligations when his father falls ill, marking his first failure to pursue his own path. After his mother’s death, Ethan remains in Starkfield out of a sense of duty towards his wife, Zeena. Zeena, clinging to the familiarity and support of their traditional community, fears abandoning it.

The Constraints of a Patriarchal Society:

Starkfield represents a classic patriarchal society where women face limited options. Zeena, as Ethan’s wife, is confined to traditional roles: housewife, mother, and maid. This lack of agency leads her to manipulate Ethan through her perceived illness, both controlling him and avoiding physical labor.

Ethan’s Submissiveness and Failed Dreams:

Ethan, bound by duty and lacking financial resources, remains trapped. He briefly fantasizes about escaping to the West but ultimately succumbs to his perceived lack of options. Contemplating suicide, a decision heavily influenced by Mattie, he resigns himself to his fate.

Illusion vs. Reality and the Failure of Communication:

The characters grapple with illusions: Ethan and Mattie dream of a life together, while Zeena escapes reality through her hypochondria. Crucially, they fail to communicate their true feelings. Ethan and Mattie, despite their unspoken connection, lack genuine emotional and physical intimacy. This inability to express themselves becomes a significant obstacle.

A Personal and Social Tragedy:

Scholars often interpret “Ethan Frome” as a tragedy. Ethan, the tragic hero, possesses a fatal flaw—his passivity and inability to challenge societal expectations. This ultimately leads to his downfall. Some argue that Ethan is not entirely to blame, as the oppressive environment of Starkfield inevitably traps him. Even if he had married Mattie, she might have succumbed to the same fate as Zeena, highlighting the inescapable nature of social conventions.

The Role of the Characters:

While Ethan is the central character, the story hinges on the presence of Zeena and Mattie. The narrative, told primarily from Ethan’s perspective, offers limited insight into the women’s thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, their roles are crucial in driving the plot and shaping Ethan’s tragic journey.

Ethan’s Character Analysis:

Ethan’s name, with its biblical connotations of strength, ironically contrasts with his submissive nature. Physically capable, as evidenced by his survival after the accident, he lacks the inner strength to break free from his circumstances. Ethan remains a somewhat static character, showing minimal growth or transformation throughout the story.

Is Ethan’s story a personal tragedy stemming from his indecision and failures, or a social tragedy shaped by the oppressive New England setting?

Ultimately, “Ethan Frome” presents a compelling blend of both personal and social tragedy.

l and social tragedy.

The main character in the story is Ethan. But without the two female characters the story would be nothing. It is a multivocal story. The focalizer however is Ethan, we see the story mainly from his point of view. We don’t have a lot of references about Zeena’s or Mattie’s feelings or points of view. The story focuses on Ethan, though he is not the narrator.


What do we know about Ethan? It is not a conventional Anglo-Saxon name, it comes from the Old Testament. We have this kind of connotations to strength. In Hebrew Ethan suggest power. In a physical point of view we have references to this, there is an emphasis on the survival after the accident. But this is ironical, since he is not a strong character, he is submissive. Is he a flat or a round character? He is sort of flat, there is no remarkable change in the story?