Ethan Frome Plot Summary
The narrator of the novel notices a crippled, frail, sad-looking man in town, whose name is Ethan Frome. The narrator meets Ethan when the man who drives him to the local train station is unable to take him and another townsman suggests that the narrator ask Ethan to drive. Ethan has been driving the narrator back and forth for a while until one winter day, huge amounts of snow block their path. Ethan invites the narrator to his home on his farm to stay the night. At the Frome farm, the narrator then sees what makes him so miserable: the two women who live with him. One of the women, a tall, pale woman, is Zeena Frome, Ethan's wife. The other woman, who is severely crippled and paralyzed, is Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin and Ethan's former lover. The narrator then begins to suspect the turn of events that led to the tragic fate of Ethan and Mattie.
Young Ethan Frome goes to the town dance to walk his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, home. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie are the only ones who occupy the Frome farm; Ethan's parents died four or five years ago. Mattie has come to Starkfield to help care for the ailing Zeena. Ethan has fallen for the sweet Mattie, so unlike the complaining and ungrateful Zeena, and is attracted to her vibrancy and emotion. Ethan is jealous of Denis Eady's attraction to Mattie, and Zeena knows it. As Ethan walks Mattie home from the dance, they pass by the hill that people sled down and they both express their desire to sled down the hill. Mattie tells him that she does not want to leave town even if Zeena wants her to go.
Zeena leaves Starkfield to see a doctor in a nearby town. Ethan makes an excuse - getting cash for the lumber they have - not to drive Zeena to the train station. After Zeena leaves, Ethan imagines what it would feel like to be married to Mattie, with just the two of them alone;. This will be the first night Mattie and Ethan can be alone, without any interruptions from Zeena. Ethan recalls his mother's final illness that led to her death - Zeena had come to the Frome farm to help care for Ethan's mother, and he married her out of loneliness. Their marriage had been rocky from the beginning - mostly due to Zeena's silent and cold manner. Ethan goes to see Andrew Hale to see if Hale can give him money for the lumber, but Hale refuses.
Ethan is even more attracted to Mattie, whose appearance is heightened by the red ribbon in her hair. Mattie has prepared a warm supper for Ethan. They have a nice time until they mention Zeena's name and then Pussy, the cat, accidentally breaks Zeena's cherished pickle-dish, which they were not supposed to use without Zeena's permission. Mattie is inconsolable at the prospect of Zeena finding out about the broken dish. Ethan comes up with the idea to glue the pieces back together before Zeena can discover the broken dish.
Before Ethan can glue the broken dish back together, Zeena returns home. Zeena informs him that her doctor has told her to hire a new girl to do all the housework, for Mattie is not as efficient as Zeena wants her to be. Ethan is angered and dismayed at the thought of losing Mattie and at the thought of more unnecessary expenses for Zeena's care. Zeena, also enraged, tells him that she became sick from nursing his ill mother. Ethan protests that he has no money to give the new girl, but Zeena asks him shrewdly about the money he supposedly received from the lumber. Ethan looks at Zeena in a new light, as she dismissively sends Mattie, her own relation, away without a care for the poor girl. Ethan tells Mattie that she must go. When Zeena discovers the broken pieces of the pickle-dish, she yells at Mattie calling her a disgrace like her father.
Ethan thinks of running away to the West with Mattie, but his obligation to Zeena prevents him from leaving her in such a terrible position. The farm does not make much money, and he would not be able to support Mattie on such a small income even if they were to leave. He feels as if he is destined to stay in Starkfield forever; escape is impossible. The next day, the day Mattie is supposed to leave, Ethan tries to ask the Hales for money, but he is unable to lie to people who are truly sympathetic to his fate.
Ethan tells Zeena that he will take Mattie to the station himself. They are very much devastated at the thought of leaving each other. They decide to take the sled ride that they used to talk about. Mattie suggests that they throw themselves in the path of the elm tree. They both agree that their lives are not worth living if they are separated. They hit the elm tree with an unexpected result: they are both severely injured, but survive the crash. Zeena takes the invalid Mattie in and cares for her; Ethan is crippled from the crash. Ethan's fate is tragic: he must live with the woman he hates, and the woman with whom he had a chance to live a happy life.