Ethan felt very obligated to care for his mother, when he could have instead still been at Worcester helping himself by continuing his studies. However, he clearly was putting his family first, and all that was left of it was his mother. It would not be helping care for his mother that turned out to be his mistake, however, though it certainly was what led him to making his mistake. When Zenobia Pierce, known affectionately as “Zeena,” came along to help care for his mother until her death, Ethan believed he’d found someone to prevent his loneliness. But very soon after he’d decided to marry her, she herself fell ill with what had taken his mother.
Just like so many Fromes before him, Ethan found himself trapped in Starkfield, working a farm that barely kept them alive. It is a family curse; the Fromes have been long stricken with so much sickness. Zeena’s sickness is not his fault, but he feels such a responsibility for her, when it had not been necessary for Ethan to marry her in the first place. He took an opportunity for what he may have considered a quick solution for his loneliness. Now he finds himself all the more alone, living, but not really living, seemingly doomed to meet the fate of all his ancestors. Perhaps, Ethan didn’t want to leave Zeena alone, but then again, why did he take it upon himself that marrying her was the only right thing to do? It would seem that Zeena somehow convinced him to do so, but inevitably it was Ethan’s choice, which as we know now, was not so good for him in the long run.
When Mattie Silver, Zeena’s rather unskilled cousin who has found herself with nowhere to go, arrives at the Frome household, Ethan finds new joy in his life. It is perfectly realistic for him to feel that way and, granted, she is a sweet, attractive young lady. It is only natural to be attracted to such a joyful, vibrant person as Miss Silver. However, he is still married to Zeena and has a responsibility to remain with her. Ethan has a very strong conscience; he knows it would be wrong to cheat on Zeena, but what is there at all attractive or even likeable about her? As Edith Wharton writes, “There had never been anything in her that one could appeal to; but as long as he could ignore and command he had remained indifferent.”
Seven years of supporting Zeena, however, had worn him down considerably. He came to feel so powerless to her, something he seems to have allowed her to do, and now, “he abhorred her.” Mattie was, for a little while, his escape from what had become for him a very sad existence with a cold, emotionless woman. In sharp contrast to Zeena, Ethan sees Mattie as a guardian angel, a beautiful creature he could admire, someone to bring some degree of joy to his miserable life. While there is little doubt that Mattie does actually like Ethan, it would seem that our good Mr. Frome is reading some things into her actions. For example, during the romantic dinner, Ethan thought that everything was so eloquently set for him, when she was probably making everything the way Ethan liked it because that was her job. It is hard to say how much Mattie really loved Ethan, but Ethan certainly felt a great deal more for Mattie than she did for him. Most of all, Mattie allows him a new found freedom of spirit, someone he can seem to share his love of nature with, something that is indeed very difficult to do with someone as bed-ridden as Zeena. Her youthful innocence and beauty is so refreshing to him and he feels that he can do so many things with her, making his existence seem a little more livable.
On the other hand, Zeena is a domineering sort who has a lot of power over Ethan. She does pretty much control him, and I sympathize with Ethan on whom he’s been forced to live for. Zeena is the absolute antithesis of Mattie. Truly, Zeena has let herself stagnate and waste away. Though the sickness has a great deal to do with that, even in sickness, there can be spirit. Zeena seems completely cold and emotionless, whereas Mattie is warm, amiable, and full of life. Zeena completely lacks any sort of “warmth” that Mattie has. Ethan can never “win” with Zeena. He can never win an argument with her, and they are arguments that she starts. Zeena wants complete control over Ethan. She doesn’t want his attention at all diverted by anyone, especially her own cousin Mattie.
Ethan is trapped by a decision. It is quite believable that such a relationship can exist, and I do feel some sympathy for Ethan, because had no idea what Zeena would actually turn out to be. He is a prisoner in her home. His only crime was marrying the wrong woman, and now he is helpless to her. Ethan does appear to be a weak protagonist, but like Mattie, where does he have to go? After his and Mattie’s “smash-up,” as it comes to be called in town, Zeena helps both of them recover and they become just like Zeena, forever trapped in Starkfield. The saddest thing about Ethan is that he basically allows Zeena to control him; whether or not he would ever admit that, it would seem to be true. It is because Ethan feels he needs some sort of stability, even if it is counter-productive. It is this weakness of character, his unwillingness to move on with his life, that has plagued Ethan for so long, not the compassion he’d felt to help care for his mother in her final days. Zeena has become sort of a warden over this little prison of a farmhouse.
Ethan indeed felt very obligated to the women in his life. I feel he was quite correct in feeling so much responsibility for his mother’s care, especially when she was all that was left of his immediate family. Also, Ethan does have a legitimate reason to care about Mattie. Her family pretty much threw her away, heartlessly discarding her, and her cousin Zeena was all she had to turn to. Ethan is lonely and Mattie doesn’t have a home; it was a relationship that could’ve worked, as Ethan could provide Mattie the home and Mattie could prevent Ethan from being lonely. However, Ethan chained himself to the sickly Zeena. He didn’t want to be alone and this is what he got: a situation in which being alone and free would probably have been a great deal more preferable.
Ethan’s falling in love with Mattie after so deeply committing himself to Zeena brings up one of those “if only” scenarios. What if only Mattie had arrived sooner? But as we all know and so don’t often like, things just do not happen in that way. When Zeena tries to send Mattie away, Ethan realizes how much he can’t live without Mattie. But after the smash-up, Mattie is no longer the same person she was before, and Ethan finds himself a crushed, barely recognizable resemblance of his former self.
It would seem that the Fromes were never quite able to leave Starkfield. Ethan could’ve been the one that got away. He was a smart man who could have done some good in the world with his great interests in science and appreciation for nature. But his own fear of loneliness paralyzed him. Ethan Frome is a prime example of how loneliness can drive people to make unproductive decisions. He doesn’t have the self-confidence to reach out and find other people. Being alone and lonely are much different. Though technically Ethan is not alone, he is lonely among what could be a graveyard, zombies walking around him; these same unfortunate circumstances have ruined his family for generations and the symbolic use of the Starkfield graveyard proves this. Ethan just couldn’t find the will, though it certainly came to his mind, to beat that terrible fate. In the end, he imprisoned himself in Starkfield forever with a cold, chilling specter of a wife in Zeena and a Mattie broken in both body and spirit, without any chance at all of parole.