Zeena and Mattie are different women posing the possibility of two different lives for Ethan. The two women are most easily contrasted in the end of the novel when their eventual situations have been discovered. Of the Frome house at the end of the story the narrator says, "I don't see there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down at the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues" (Wharton 77). Both women were miserable, as is Ethan. Zeena has spent the last twenty-six years taking care of the man and woman who would have betrayed her. She is still the proper wife who is dull and unexciting. Mattie, after becoming physically disabled, is no longer the vibrant and lively creature who she once was. Her life experiences have made her angry and bitter and she spends all her time complaining and whining, much as Zeena had when Ethan became fed up with her. Ethan is himself broken from the accident with Mattie. Had he been able to overcome the rules of the Victorian society, that is to say had he been able to run away from his marriage to Zeena and form a life with Mattie then it is arguable that he would not be the broken and embittered man of the novel's present. He will never be free from the women in his life as indicated when the narrator says, "The inexorable facts closed in on him like a prison-warden's cuffing of a conflict" (Wharton 99). In bowing to social pressures, Ethan has made himself forever entrapped in his Victorian union and reminded of what might have been had he made another choice.
Many of Edith Wharton's stories are about Victorian expectation and how difficult it is to live up to the expectations of the age. For the characters of Ethan Frome this is problem is at the heart of the novel's plot. Ethan knows that as a Victorian man he is expected to marry a proper woman and together they are to live as happy an existence as possible although happiness has little if anything to do with the union. Had Ethan been a braver man and made away with Mattie then happiness was certainly not guaranteed, but he had a better chance for it than the shadow of a life he lives at the story's end.
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