Ethan Frome, a poor, downtrodden New England farmer, is trapped in a loveless marriage to his invalid wife, Zeena. His ambition and intelligence are oppressed by Zeena's cold, conniving character. When Zeena's young cousin Mattie arrives to help care for her, Ethan is immediately taken by Mattie's warm, vivacious personality. They fall desperately in love as he realizes how much is missing from his life and marriage. Tragically, their love is doomed by Zeena's ever-lurking presence and by the social conventions of the day. Ethan remains torn between his sense of obligation and his urge to satisfy his heart's desire up to the suspenseful and unanticipated conclusion.
Perhaps reflective of Wharton's own loveless marriage, this sophisticated, star-crossed love story vividly depicts her abhorrence of society's relentless standards of loyalty. Ethan Frome is one of Wharton's most popular and best-known works.