Ethan Frome is the protagonist of the novel. A "ruin of a man," according to The Narrator, he is still a "striking figure." He appears to be tall, though his "strong shoulders" are "bent out of shape." He has blue eyes and brown hair with a streak of light. He has a "powerful look," that is "bleak and unapproachable." Everyone who knows Ethan respects his taciturnity. Ethan is a poor man who is simple, straightforward, and responsible. When The Narrator first glimpses Ethan's face in an unguarded moment, he sees Ethan as a man who " . . . looks as if he (is) dead and in hell. . . . "
Ethan's life has been quite miserable for over twenty years. As a young man, Ethan began college, hoping to become an engineer. His studies are interrupted by the death of his father. He succumbs to his sense of duty and cares for his mother, who is ill, and the family farm and sawmill. Aware of the isolation and loneliness facing him after his mother's death, Ethan marries Zeena, a cousin who nursed his mother. Ethan would like nothing better than to move away; however, Zeena will not leave Starkfield. She becomes a hypochondriac and Ethan finds himself captive to the farm, sawmill, and Zeena. To avoid saying things to Zeena that he doesn't mean, Ethan does not respond to her incessant complaining; instead, he suffers in silence. His external conflict with Zeena becomes an internal conflict also.
In Mattie, Ethan discovers a kindred spirit. She seems to understand him. Ethan experiences an internal conflict when he realizes that he is in love with Mattie. He feels that it would be unfair to Mattie to reveal his feelings or to provoke her feelings for him. Again, Ethan suffers in silence. He watches Mattie dance with Eady and feels jealous but is unable to voice his feelings; he is, after all, married to Zeena. Because Ethan never talks to Mattie about his feelings for her, he is unsure of her feelings for him. He agonizes, wondering if Mattie could ever love him. When he is around Mattie, Ethan feels a sense of mastery. For example, he feels protective of Mattie; he feels authoritative, important, and needed.
The feelings Ethan has when he interacts with Mattie are in sharp contrast to the feelings he experiences during interactions with Zeena, who has a way of demeaning Ethan with her control of him. The night that Zeena is in Bettsbridge and Ethan is alone with Mattie, he fantasizes that he is married to Mattie. When the pickle dish breaks, Ethan becomes assertive; he takes over and makes decisions. He tells Mattie that he will glue the red dish together the next day before Zeena returns home. Ethan's intention is to deceive Zeena and protect Mattie. In so doing, he is proving his manhood and his love for Mattie. Although there is no physical contact between Ethan and Mattie, their nonverbal communication reveals the deep feelings they have for each other.
After Zeena tells Ethan that Mattie will have to leave their household because a hired girl is coming, Ethan's antipathy for Zeena is evident. He shows his anger and realizes that he has lost; Zeena has conniving dominance of his life. His impulsive plan to run off with Mattie becomes another unfulfilled dream. A partial cause of Ethan's tragedy is that he does not plan ahead. Instead, he escapes reality through self-delusion. Ethan deliberates between doing what's right and doing what he wants. In the end, he submits to his obligations.
Ethan sees suicide as the only escape from the loneliness and isolation that has become his life. When the attempt he and Mattie make fails to kill them, Ethan reverts to his old habits: He lives out his days as a prisoner of circumstance, suffering in silence.