Ethan struggles against the customs and rules of society, fighting an inner battle between what he feels he needs in order to be happy and what he feels he must do to appease his family and society. Most prominently, this theme plays out in Ethan's struggle between his desire for Mattie and his sense of duty toward Zeena, his wife. Wharton portrays Zeena as horribly shrewish, devoid of any redeeming attributes, while Mattie is kind, gentle, radiant, and a perfect match for Ethan. Ethan's desire to leave Zeena for Mattie is therefore completely understandable. Yet, because Ethan knows that society would severely judge a man who abandoned his wife, and because he knows that without him Zeena would suffer in poverty, he can't bring himself to leave her. Similarly, Ethan avoids entering into an affair with Mattie because he knows that an affair would ruin Mattie's reputation. He therefore continually thinks of their relationship in terms of marriage, takes great pleasure in their domesticity, and displays an intense physical shyness, avoiding even touching Mattie when they are alone together in the house.
Ethan's sense of duty and morality conflict with his desires in a variety of other ways. His desire to leave Starkfield to pursue a career in engineering conflicts with his obligation to provide for his wife and continue running the family farm. His strict code of ethics won't allow him to lie to the Hales to get the money to run away with Mattie. Even in his great act of defiance, when Ethan and Mattie decide to commit suicide to try to escape the constraints placed on them by the world, Ethan can't stop thinking about his duties. As the sled speeds downhill, he remembers that he must feed his horse and thinks of Zeena—these distractions make him lose control of the sled and botch the suicide attempt, crippling instead of killing himself and Mattie, and condemning them both to a kind of living death.
Duty and Morality vs. Desire ThemeTracker
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Quotes in Ethan Frome
"Oh, Ethan!" she cried.
"I don't know how it is you make me feel, Matt. I'd a'most rather have you dead than that!"
"Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!" she sobbed.