- "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters." (Author's Introductory Note) Harmon Gow speculates on the cause of Ethan Frome's ruined and prematurely aged appearance. His remark expresses the theme of the landscape's shaping of character and fate.
".the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth." (Chapter 1)
The arrival of the vital and joyful Mattie Silver holds out a promise of transformation in Ethan Frome's cold and sterile existence.
"Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its rings of crimping-pins." (Chapter 2)
This nightmare vision is Ethan's first sight of Zeena after his and Mattie's return from the village. Zeena is shown as a withered and dried-up old crone, particularly as contrasted with the young and beautiful Mattie, who, in a parallel scene, opens the door to Ethan the following night (Chapter 4).
"After the funeral, when he [Ethan] saw her [Zeena] preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter." (Chapter 4)
The circumstances of how and why Ethan and Zeena met and married are laid out. The fundamental reason was that after his mother's death and facing the imminent departure of the nurse, Zeena, Ethan could not face a winter alone in the farmhouse. The passage shows how climate and landscape shapes people's character and actions in this isolated community.
".their evening together had given him a vision of what life at her side might be, and he was glad now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture." (Chapter 6)
The morning after Ethan and Mattie's first evening together, he feels glad that he did not touch her. He is happy with his "vision" of what life could be like with her. Critics debate about why Ethan does not act. However, his failure to act is in line with how he has conducted his life thus far, subjugating his own ambitions and desires in a martyred existence looking after one invalid after another.
"The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out - none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished." (Chapter 8)
Ethan considers and finally, bitterly rejects as unfeasible his plan to leave Zeena and go West with Mattie, his "one ray of light."
"It's bad enough to see the two women sitting there - but his face, when he looks around that bare place, just kills me." (Chapter 10)
Mrs Hale explains to the narrator why she visits the Fromes less frequently than she did. She believes that her frequent visits after the accident made them feel worse. Ethan's pride makes him dislike even his old friends seeing how they live now: in poverty, with the invalid Mattie being looked after by Zeena. Mrs Hale's sensitivity means that she is affected by Ethan's misery.
"Nobody knows Zeena's thoughts." (Chapter 10)
Mrs Hale, who, along with her neighbors, is baffled at why Ethan and Mattie were sledding when they should have been on the road to the train station, comments that she does not know Zeena's thoughts, at the time of the accident or now. She adds that no one does. This applies to the reader, too: the narrator never lets us in on Zeena's version of events. Our lack of understanding of her inner life adds to her sinister, inscrutable and unsympathetic character.
"It was a miracle, considering how sick she was - but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her." (Chapter 10)
Mrs Hale tells the narrator how the sickly Zeena mysteriously came into her strength after the accident, and how she had looked after Ethan and Mattie ever since. This is one of the major ironies of Ethan Frome - that the invalid Zeena turns into the carer, and that the vigorous young Mattie turns into the invalid. It raises the question of just how sick Zeena ever was. Perhaps she was simply addicted to martyrdom (first to her illnesses, then to her carer role).
". if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."
Mrs Hale tells the narrator that if Mattie had died, Ethan may have lived, but as things are, his existence is a kind of living death. Ironically, Ethan had wished this situation on himself when on the coasting slope, he had said that he always wanted to be with Mattie. In addition, in Chapter 2, he had asked his dead ancestors to help him keep Mattie with him: his natural ally is death, not life. He gets his desire, and Mattie is kept on the Frome farm forever, for the tragic reason that, being crippled in the accident, she is unable to leave.
Mrs Hale believes that Mattie's surviving the accident is literally a fate worse than death, since the dead hold their peace, whereas Mattie and Zeena are often at each other's throats, adding to Ethan's suffering.