Cue the depressing love story.
The main story takes place in the form of a flashback, around 20 years ago. Mattie has come to stay with Ethan and his wife Zenobia (or Zeena, as she is mostly referred to) to take care of Zeena in her frail health, as well as do some light housework. Ethan has fallen in love with Mattie, but doesn't make any attempts to tell her how he feels. Until Zeena leaves town to see a new doctor...
The story itself is less than 150 pages long, but it appears frequently on United States High School required book reading lists.
This novel provides examples of:
- Author Tract: Edith Wharton had a very unhappy marriage, alleviated only by her one brief (known) affair. Many interpret Wharton as Ethan, her lover as Mattie, and her husband (who apparently had a nervous breakdown or was mentally unstable) as Zeena.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Ethan and Mattie wanted together and they got it alright, by both being stuck in Starkfield and both miserable together.
- Broken Treasure: Ethan and Zeena don't have the best of marriages, what with Zeena being a hypochondriac shrew; but when Zeena goes off to another town to try a new doctor, leaving Ethan alone with Mattie, the cat is startled and breaks a wedding gift (a red glass pickle dish), signifying that their relationship is in serious trouble.
- Bungled Suicide: Ethan and Mattie try to kill themselves, but survive with crippling injuries. Considering their method was a sled crash, this isn't exactly surprising.
- Caretaker Reversal: Three times with Zeena: Before their marriage and life together in Starkfield, Zeena was healthy and knowledgeable about medicine, taking care of Ethan's mother. During the majority of Ethan's story, Zeena spends her time claiming that she's ill and having Ethan care for her. Then, after Ethan and Mattie's Bungled Suicide, when they both acquire crippling injuries, Zeena takes care of them, even 20 years after the accident.
- Cats Are Mean: The cat symbolizes Zeena's unrelenting presence. The cat instigates the symbolic 'shattering' of his marital stability when it breaks Zeena's treasured pickle dish.
- Character Title
- Chekhov's Gun: The cucumber vine. Zeena doesn't die.
- Color Motif: Mattie is connected to red, and is the heroine but also someone that's (metaphorically) seductive to Ethan; Zeena is white and gray and drab, as she is obsessed with her illness and imminent death.
- Downer Ending: By the end of it, Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie are still stuck on the farm, with Mattie being a quadraplegic and Zeena taking care of them both, as Ethan is also crippled, with nothing better to do besides to give each other dirty looks for the rest of their lives. Oh, and Ethan has no takeaways from what happened 24 years earlier.
- Driven to Suicide: Ethan and Mattie. It doesn't work.
- Fate Worse than Death: After the sled crash, Mattie is paralyzed from the neck down, Ethan is lamed, and they are stuck in Starkfield forever under the care of Zeena. Oh, and Mattie becomes Zeena 2.0.
- The Film of the Book
- Flashback: The entire main story.
- Foreshadowing: Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale almost crash into a tree and die while sledding early on, which foreshadows Ethan and Mattie's intentional crash
- Foregone Conclusion: Even before the start of chapter 1, you know things aren't going to end well for Ethan.
- Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Ethan is portrayed sympathetically as being trapped in a loveless marriage to Zeena, a hypochondriac shrew, with his only chance of escape from Zeena and the confining town of Starkfield being the vibrant Mattie. In the end, though, Ethan and Mattie suffer a Fate Worse than Death after a failed suicide attempt.
- Hotter and Sexier: The Film of the Book adds in heavily implied sex where there was only a kiss in the book.
- I Coulda Been a Contender!: Ethan is frustrated over being unable to pursue his scientific interests because of being tied to his small hometown with the illnesses of his parents and wife.
- Irony: Zeena gives Mattie the empty medicine bottle, saying it'll do for pickles. Also, Zeena saying she just feels so mean she can't sleep.
- Jerkass: Zeena. She's mean, cold, emotionally abusive to Ethan, and uses her hypochondria to get what she wants. The first thing she does when gets back home is to send Mattie away, even though the latter doesn't have anywhere to go or to support herself after her parents died.
- Just Eat Gilligan: Literally all of Ethan's problems would have been solved if he'd just divorced Zeena or if he never married her in the first place.
- Meaningful Name:
- Ethan means "permanence", "strength" or "endurance", although, in his case, it's ironic. Sure, he's permanently staying in Starkfield Mass, however, he doesn't have the strength to change his situation for the better and, while he "endures" his cold marriage to Zeena, it's not framed as a good thing.
- Zeena's full name "Zenobia" means 'sign' or 'symbol' and was the name of a ruthless Biblical queen. Even when she's not in the house, she still has a domineering presence. She rules over Ethan and, later, Mattie's lives.
- Mattie's surname of "Silver", implies that she's something shiny and new and therefore far more appealing to Ethan. Interestingly, her surname could allude to her being from a richer and happier background in comparison to Ethan and Zeena
- There's also the town of Starkfield, with "stark" possibly alluding to the town's lack of prospects for Ethan.
- Motif: Mattie and light.
- Nice Guy: Ethan, however, he's a too nice. To list, he gave up his dreams to take care of his parents, his care of Zeena means he's stuck in Starkfield because moving might upset her and leaving her makes him feel guilty, and, just before him and Mattie crash into that elm tree, he's thinking about how hungry his horse is. His being kind doesn't do him or anyone else any favors, as the guy don't seem to have a backbone
- Numerological Motif: Kind of. Zeena is older than Ethan by seven years; Ethan and Zeena have been married seven years. Mattie is younger than Ethan by seven years. Subverted in that seven is not a lucky number for Ethan.
- Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Ethan is torn between staying with his ill, shrewish wife, Zeena, and running away with her sweet cousin Mattie, for whom he's fallen. When Ethan decides to ask his neighbors for an advance payment on the logs he chops up for them to have enough money to run away with Mattie to the West, he's deterred from doing so when one of them praises him for taking care of Zeena, saying sympathetically, "You've had an awful mean old time, Ethan Frome."
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Zeena, whose full name is Zenobia.
- Rule of Symbolism: The gravestone of Ethan's ancestors Ethan and Endurance, who were married 50 years. Also Mattie being connected to traveler's joy, and Zeena being connected to the dead cucumber vine that looks like death crepe.
- Too Dumb to Live: Inverted, because of the botched suicide attempt; Ethan and Mattie are too dumb to die. Although the sled crash is suitably symbolic of the escape that their suicide would have been, there are far, far less painful and more effective ways to go about it. It's no surprise, then, when their attempt fails.
- Unreliable Narrator: The narrator basically comes out and says right in the beginning that the story, even when he assembled it from Harmon Gow's account, was still full of holes. There may be good chunks of chapters 1-9 that are warped or wildly inaccurate.