Ethan Frome is described as “the most striking figure in Starkfield” (Wharton 4)--“the ruin of a man,” (4) with a “careless powerful look…in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain” (4). Frome's wife is the “sickly, cantankerous” (4) Zenobia ("Zeena"). He is her sole caregiver until her young and beautiful cousin, Mattie Silver, arrives to help with housekeeping. Ethan is taken in by Mattie’s youthful beauty and good humor, but his interest in Mattie does not go unnoticed by Zeena. In fact, when she realizes Ethan and Mattie’s mutual attraction, she plans to hire someone less attractive and to have Mattie sent away.
The comfort Ethan seeks in Mattie's company is threatened when Zeena says that she will replace Mattie with a hired housemaid. During the time between this announcement and Mattie's leaving, Ethan considers leaving his wife numerous times to elope with Mattie, but every time he lacks the confidence to rebel against the morals of his being and community.
On the day of Mattie's departure, emotion overcomes Ethan, and he tells Mattie that he wants to live with her forever. A despondent Mattie pleads with Ethan to take a final sled ride down together into a bulky elm tree, so it will kill them instantly, rather than live the rest of their lives separated. Ethan, desperate to escape his loveless marriage and meaningless life, complies. The accident, however, fails to kill them because Ethan "sees" Zeena out of guilt and tries to turn away from her; instead Mattie is permanently paralyzed and Ethan is left barely able to walk.
After the story is told, the narrator is shown inside Ethan's home, where he finds two old women, one of whom complains in a whiny voice of the coldness. The whining woman turns out to be Mattie, and the other woman is a healthier Zeena who now looks after Ethan and Mattie much as they once looked after her.
This summary was taken from Wikipedia.
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