Along with providing food for thought regarding the tug-of-war between passion versus responsibility, I think this may have been Wharton’s warning to her readers to avoid making a hasty decision on whom you will marry. Avoid the shrews!
Ethan Frome was the most handsome man in his little town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. He was an intelligent and quiet man with dreams of becoming an engineer. He thought running his father’s farm would only be temporary, but he stayed because he was devoted to caring for his ailing parents before they died.
He received help from a woman named Zeena and once both parents were gone, Ethan realized he had gotten used to her and asked her to stay. They married, and shortly after she started evidencing what surely must have been hypochondria (and general laziness). Her days were spent lying in bed with her false teeth in a glass, complaining about her symptoms, and working Ethan to the bone to provide for her.
When Ethan was 28 and Zeena 35, they took in Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver. She was to help with the household chores and whatever else Zeena desired. She was there for about a year when Ethan started becoming quietly fascinated by her happiness and vibrancy–such a polar opposite from his wife and his life in general.
Zeena notices, and we witness her jealousy, manipulation, and mean-spiritedness, leading up to a tragic act of desperation.
Ethan has been given one difficulty after another in his life and takes it on the chin. You can’t help but wish for him to be pulled from his life’s downward spiral and have his brief moments of hope for a different life to be fulfilled.
“He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of it’s frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it…the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.”