A struggle for power can often be the limiting factor on the harmony of a relationship. A healthy relationship usually does not involve this power struggle, as both people want a mutual sharing of the responsibilities and powers. Sadly, in the novel Ethan Frome, this is not the case, and Ethan’s wife Zeena is the dominant figure in the house, with her husband Ethan rarely having a say on any matters significant or otherwise. This is especially significant because it directly correlates to the way in which the characters act and the actions that they choose to make. Due to the fact that Ethan is powerless and scared to take any initiative that might be to his wife’s displeasure, he is inevitably stuck in a shallow and unfulfilling life. Additionally, as Zeena realizes that she may do or say whatever she pleases without reprimand, she does so, often being rude and chastising Mattie without just cause. It is especially ironic how much power Zeena has considering her self-proclaimed sickly state. Mattie too is stuck powerless, because Ethan will not stand up for her, and she is obligated to except whatever meanness Zeena brings upon her, because Zeena took her in when she had nowhere else to go.
One example of Zeena’s power is her constant obstinance. She often employs deceitful tactics and is extremely indirect in order to get her way. For instance, when Zeena is going up to bed, she wants Ethan to come along, and even though he does not want to, she convinces him by saying, “At this time o’ night? You’ll ketch your death. The fire’s out long ago” (34). Ethan, not willing to argue, assents and follows her up the stairs.
Another showing of her power is her ridiculous spending of money on remedies to cure sicknesses that she does not really have. Although “her husband had grown to dread these expeditions because of their cost” (38), Ethan has never stood up to her and told her to stop wasting his money or informed her that she is not really sick. He does not do this because he knows that if he tried to, she would argue the point relentlessly until she has talked herself into being right.
Mattie is aware of Zeena’s power over her as well. This can be seen in the way that she is always apologetic when her skills are lacking and in the way that she is always offering to help. I do not believe she offers help to be nice, but to try her best to get into Zeena’s favor. When Mattie breaks the pickle dish, she becomes hysterical, terrified at the idea of what Zeena will say or do. This is made clear in the parallelism of Mattie’s diction: “Oh, Ethan, Ethan-it’s all to pieces! … Oh, you’ll never get another … Oh, Ethan, Ethan, what in the world shall I do? … Oh, Ethan, what are you going to do?” (49).
There is one instance in the novel where Ethan finally stands up to Zeena and does what he wants to do. This is when he fights her on the idea of taking Mattie to the train station. When Zeena makes up her excuse of “I wanted you should stay here and fix up that stove in Mattie’s room afore the girl gets here,” Ethan indignantly retorts, “If it was good enough for Mattie I guess it’s good enough for the hired girl” (81). When Zeena tells him the girl is used to a house with a stove, he spits back, “She’d better ha’ stayed there then.”
All in all, power in the novel is owned and operated solely by Zeena and most of the actions (or lack of action) of Ethan and Mattie are direct results of her oppressing power. As I just mentioned, there was one instance where there is a power shift and Ethan decides he is going to see Mattie off. Ironically, by him standing firm on this decision, it leads to his plummeting down the hill into the big elm, and all three of them living out their miserable lives in solemn togetherness.