Edith Wharton's tale of Ethan Frome is a classic story of hopeful romance ending in tragedy. We are introduced to Ethan as he's walking to pick up his wife's cousin Mattie, at a church social. On the way, we witness some of Ethan's thoughts about his life and the people in it. By the end of Chapter One, the readers begin to understand the way Ethan views himself, Mattie, and Zeena, and the way these characters might influence the events in the novel.
We learn much about Ethan during his walk to the church. He reflects how "his father's death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things."(27) This gives the impression that Ethan got away from Starkfield just long enough to see what his life might have been like. When he refers to the "misfortunes" after his father's death, it looks as if he's talking about having to live on a financially desolate farm with his wife Zeena. It's clear that this isn't the life he'd envisioned for himself, giving the reader a sense of imminent conflict when he'll inevitably try to escape his humdrum life.
When Ethan's thoughts shift to Mattie, his typical somber mood changes. It's obvious that Ethan likes her, for he is excited when he spots her at the dance, but becomes very jealous when he sees that she's dancing with Denis Eady, a man also vying for Mattie's affections. Ethan's confidence falters when he notices that Mattie uses the same gestures with Denis that he'd assumed she kept for him. He feels stupid for thinking that Mattie could have actually liked him and wonders "how he could have ever thought that his dull talk interested her."(p.35) His constant second-guessing shows how insecure he is about himself and his worth in life.
When we "meet" Zeena in the first chapter, we don't meet her in actuality, we meet Ethan's portrayal of her. When Ethan refers to his wife, he uses words like "sickly, whiny, plaintive, and secretively silent." ."..Zeena, one day, had surprised...