Ethan Frome is one of American literature's most pitiable of tragic characters. Physically a broken man, described as 'stiffened and grizzled,' there's a careless, powerful look about him that transcends his physical suffering and poverty. Though we are told that he's spent too many winters in the cold, barren landscape of western Massachusetts of the late nineteenth century, Ethan's problem is more visceral — it is psychological, emotional, and spiritual. The unnamed narrator of Edith Wharton's 1911 novel Ethan Frome is intrigued by the eponymous character; so much mystery and rumor surround him A visitor on an engineering job at the nearby powerplant to the forlorn town of Starkfield, he sets out to piece together Frome's past in hopes of understanding the man's personal tragedy.
Ethan's outward deformity, caused by a mysterious 'smash-up' that shortened and warped his right side, is merely a reflection of his inner suffering. His face, with its red gash tearing across his forehead tells the story: 'He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!'
But Ethan wasn't always that way: As a young man he once aspired to be an engineer, one of 'the smart ones' who would find a way out of the rural poverty he was born into. Yet, due to life's circumstances, he completed only a year of his college studies before duty called him home to Starkfield. His father had sustained a head injury on the farm, and before going to his grave, the elder Frome imprudently gave away his money and familial patrimony, leaving Ethan and his mother nothing more than a dilapidated saw mill and a few acres of unyielding soil, barely enough to eek out a continued existence through the harsh New England winters.
As a widow, Ethan's mother soon 'turned queer,' affected by bouts of heart-piercing loneliness. Day after day, she was alone with her taciturn son. Illness followed, likely an effect of the loneliness and desolation she felt. Her illness was long and drawn-out, and in her final weeks she was tended to by a visiting nurse by the name of Zeena.
With his mother soon dead and buried, Ethan couldn't stand the thought of being left without companionship. So, instead of letting Zeena return to her neighboring town, he proposed that she should marry him — a marriage of convenience and happenstance. Neither man nor wife bothered even with a pretense of love; it was merely the kind of practical arrangement typical of its day and age. Years later, Ethan reflects that if his mother had died in the spring instead of during the bleak midwinter, he would never have married her. Zeena could have been anyone — anyone with a voice. But that voice after marriage quickly turned bitter. In the months following their wedding, Zeena began to feel the effects of the desolate homestead, of being 'the wife of a poor man,' as Ethan regularly reminds her. This marriage is not what she had expected of life, and soon the only words she can manage come in the form of shrewish complaints that eventually take physical form.
It turns out that Zeena the nurse is something of a hypochondriac. Having studied all the maladies of the local folk, she becomes obsessed with what she sees as her own 'symptoms.' Ethan, in turn, becomes Zeena's de facto nursemaid as she spends most days absorbed by 'resting' — supposedly on doctor's orders. Her whole life becomes devoted to her imagined symptoms, and she turns to patent medicines and old wives' remedies to relieve her 'shooting pains.'
With Zeena Frome, Wharton has created a termagant extraordinaire — querulous, cold, self-centered, and manipulative. By contrast, Ethan is by nature a virtuous man, prone to heed duty and eschew desire, a man who does what he ought to do rather than what he wants to do. While Zeena busies herself with her own self-absorption, Ethan practices self-sacrifice, self-mortification, and — at least until the climactic event — heroic self-control.
Ironically, Zeena's longterm hypochondria is not only the cause of her husband's ultimate moral demise; it is first the inciting force that precipitates the singular 'happy conflict' in Ethan's life — the arrival of Mattie Silver into his home. Because of Zeena's 'practical selfishness' she seizes the opportunity to exploit her 20-year-old cousin who has been left in circumstances destitute. When Mattie's father died, his accounts revealed that he had been far from a responsible businessman — the end result being financial ruin and humiliation for his family. His wife died straightaway from the news, and 20-year-old Mattie was left orphaned and penniless. With no place to go, Mattie becomes a kind of indentured servant in the Frome household. The arrangement is attractive to Zeena for several reasons. Since Starkfield is so isolated and dreary, Mrs. Frome realizes the difficulty of attracting a girl to her homestead and keeping her there. Since Mattie is an impoverished relative, social conventions of the time dictated that Zeena was not expected to pay her a farthing. Room and board were deemed sufficient enough charity for a girl who had nowhere else to go. Zeena also felt she could mistreat Mattie with impunity since Mattie ostensibly had no one to protect her.
Since Ethan worked from sunup to sundown and beyond around the farm, he had little interaction with Mattie at the homestead. But in order that Mattie should not feel too sharply the isolation of a Starkfield farm, Zeena suggested that her cousin should attend 'amusements,' like church hall dances, in town. On these occasional evenings out, it was left to Ethan to escort his wife's cousin to and from the village center — a two-mile walk both there and back. No moments in her company were comparable to those when they walked back through the night to the farm.
These became the brightest moments of his week. Her presence to Ethan was like 'the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.' They quietly enjoyed one another's companionship, however brief and intermittent the episodes. Neither, it seems, has any romantic designs or hopes about the other. The two understand that they are companions outside and beyond the bond of marriage, and they are perfectly content with their relationship. In fact, Ethan is described as 'irrationally happy.' At a crucial turning point in his life, he realizes that he no longer wants out the poverty of his farmstead, he no longer desires that his wife could shed her hypochondria and take care of herself. He wants the current domestic arrangement to continue into eternity.
So, why is Ethan so 'irrationally' happy? The reason is simple: He has found his twin soul, or ultimate soulmate, in the person of Mattie Silver. In her he has found a true friend and companion, someone with whom he has a natural affinity and compatibility, someone with whom he can freely share his thoughts without his usual reserve and reticence: 'She had an eye to see and an ear to hear; he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will.'
Ethan was sensitive to the appeal of natural beauty. Even in his unhappiest moments the field and the sky spoke to him, but because he had no one with whom to share his appreciation of the natural world around him, this sensitivity also caused him a kind of sadness — a 'silent ache.' But with Maddies's arrival into his life, 'he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder.' At his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a woman with whom he could share his love of the constellations of the night sky, his fascination with a ledge of granite, the cold red sunset behind the winter hills, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow: 'It seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul…' Their relationship is summed up as having an intensely sweet 'communion.'
Of course for Ethan there's a conflict: He's already married, and Maddie is not his wife. Therein lies the conflict of the novel as well, a conflict that is resolved through ironic tragedy — the mysterious 'smash-up' that precipitates a living arrangement wherein Ethan and Maddie are never to be parted. They are both so wracked with injury and partial paralysis that, though living under one roof together, neither can enjoy the other as they are both under the watchful care and ministrations of a miraculously recovered (and redeemed) Zeena Frome.
But the concept of the twin soul, the ultimate soul mate, resonates far beyond the pages of her novel. Ethan Frome is much less a story of marital infidelity than it is a cautionary tale warning of the 'happenstance marriage,' the kind of practical marriage of convenience with which Edith Wharton herself was engaged. The ideal relationship, the ideal courtship leading to marriage, is the kind of 'sweet communion' that Ethan and Maddie shared. This is the concept of the twin soul, defined by Plato as cleaved halves of one being that spend their lives searching for each other, so that they may be made whole.
Give thanks then for all the methods of communications at our disposal today that allow us to more easily narrow the search for our twin flame — and allow us to do so before we get married.