Ethan Frome is to be held accountable for the destruction of his own life. He cannot make any decisions, for better or for worse. His indecision over what to do about his passionate, illicit feelings for Mattie and his dislike for Zeena are entirely his own fault. He is too cowardly to do anything. He attempts to hide his cowardice by blaming his indecision and its consequences on circumstance, but his true nature indubitably shows through. Instead of actually doing anything, he just waits for something to happen. This something is inevitably bad.
Ethan is conflicted between giving in to his desires and maintaining social and moral order. He loves Mattie, and is desperate to express his passion. He has plenty of chances to do so, yet, his conscience and the limitations he imposes on himself tell him that it would be wrong:
He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, and she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open, irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamp-lit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable (Wharton 81).
Ethan’s moral compass warns him that he should listen to the rules of society. Any expression of his love for Mattie would not only be frowned upon by society, but it would also be an injustice to Zeena. Although Ethan abhors the sight of his old, whining, ugly wife, he could not do that to her. The obligations that bind him in a loveless marriage to Zeena hold him back from fulfilling his obligations to himself in a passionate love for Mattie.
Ethan’s indecision is an expression of his lack of...
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...decisive. He and his wife might have moved out to the city, where Ethan could have pursued his engineering career. And, when Mattie Silver came to live with them, Ethan Frome, content with his lot in life, would not have fallen into the love that caused his hardships. Ethan caused his own misfortune by not even attempting to make a change in his unsatisfactory life. As one of the ladies in town, Mrs. Hale, says: “I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard” (157). Ethan exists lifelessly. His unwillingness to change, lack of self-responsibility, sense of obligation, and lack of inner strength and courage all add up to his irresponsibility in creating his own misfortune, which sends him to his living grave.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996. Print.