Major themes in Ethan Frome include silence, isolation, illusion, and the consequences that are the result of living according to the rules of society. Wharton relies on personal experiences to relate her thematic messages. Throughout her life as a writer, Wharton would schedule the time that she wrote around social engagements and she did not readily discuss her writing. As a result, she was familiar with silence and isolation. The rules of society did not condone a woman who was a member of the upper class working, much less as a professional writer. Societal rules also frowned upon divorce. Wharton lived in a loveless marriage for years before she took a risk and divorced Teddy Wharton, her husband for almost thirty years.
Throughout the novel Wharton focuses on silence as a major theme. In the introduction, the author describes her characters as "granite outcroppings . . . half emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate." Each of the three major characters is encased in his/her own silence. Ethan, a quiet man by nature, returns to Starkfield following the death of his father to run the family farm and sawmill. Because he is too busy working to make small talk with the villagers and his sick mother stops speaking, Ethan becomes imprisoned in a "mortal silence." He experiences a brief reprieve when Zeena arrives to care for his mother; but after his mother's death and his subsequent marriage to Zeena, Zeena falls silent also. Communication between the couple is minimal and superficial. After Mattie's arrival, Zeena forces a smothering silence on her also with her "fault-finding (that is) of the silent kind." Ethan is able to share his passion for the wonders of nature with Mattie; however, when conversation takes a turn towards intimacy, silence returns and all Ethan can say is, "Come along." The characters are unable to communicate with each other to dispel their own loneliness. It isn't until Zeena forces Mattie to leave the Frome household that Ethan and Mattie express their feelings for each other. They abandon rational thought as they attempt to commit suicide and enter a silent hell in which the only verbal communication to be heard is Zeena and Mattie's complaining.
Isolation, another major theme in the novel, is not self-imposed before the tragedy that befalls Mattie and Ethan, but is enforced upon them by outside circumstances. Ethan tried to escape the isolation of Starkfield and his father's farm by going off to the technological college at Worcester. He began to cultivate his own social traits and to overcome his reticence; however, his father's death forced him to give up college and return to the farm and his ill mother. After his marriage to Zeena, Ethan is imprisoned by the farm, millwork, and caring for Zeena. He is physically isolated from the world at large and is also cut off from the possibility of any human fellowship that life in a village might afford.
Mattie and Zeena are isolated characters also. Mattie is isolated by the deaths of both parents and the ill will of most of her relatives. She moves to the Fromes', an unfamiliar farmhouse and, except for church socials, is cut off from contact with human beings other than the Fromes. Because Zeena is consumed by her many illnesses, she rarely leaves the farmhouse, and only speaks to Ethan and Mattie when voicing her complaints or demands. Because the attempted escape from isolation by Ethan and Mattie fails tragically, Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena are left to spend their lives in an isolation even more complete than that from which they tried to flee.
Illusion, a false interpretation or perception, is an important theme in the novel. Illusion affords each of the three main characters a means of escape from the reality of the silent and isolated lives they lead. Ethan would " . . . imagine that peace reigned in his house" when Zeena stopped watching Mattie so closely after her arrival. He wants to believe that Mattie's smiles and certain gestures are just for him. Ethan dreams of being with Mattie always; in fact, "he was never so happy with her (Mattie) as when he abandoned himself to these dreams." The night that Zeena went to Bettsbridge, Ethan imagines them (Mattie and himself) sitting "on each side of the stove, like a married couple." When Zeena insists that Mattie leave their household, Ethan tries to convince himself that Zeena will change her mind. His illusion about running away with Mattie fizzles when he faces reality — he can not afford one ticket, much less two.
Mattie dreams of spending her life with Ethan. Ironically, her illusion becomes a reality. She does spend her life with Ethan, but as an invalid cared for by Zeena, not as Ethan's wife, as she had imagined.
Zeena's illusions are unhealthy. Her hypochondria enables her to escape into self-pity and self-indulgence. The smash-up forces her to abandon her illusions of withdrawing from all her household responsibilities through the device of a hired housekeeper.
The imprisonment experienced by an individual living according to the rules of society is a major theme in Ethan Frome. The message that Wharton conveys through Ethan is that when people fear they are violating the rules of society, they risk becoming enslaved by those rules. Ethan doesn't leave his wife because he feels bound by his marriage vows. He dreams about being married to Mattie; however, even as he writes his goodbye letter to Zeena, and subsequently talks to Mrs. Hale, his conscience does not allow him to follow through with his wishes. Instead, the rules of society rule his life and he remains entrapped in a loveless marriage.