Denis Eady : The son of the rich Irish grocer, Michael Eady. Before Ethan begins his affair with Mattie Silver, she is courted by Denis, though she does not seem interested in him.
Ethan Frome : The protagonist of the novel. We see the events of the story and the other characters through his eyes, though the story is told by the narrator.
Ethan was born on the farm where generations of his ancestors have lived, toiled, failed to escape, and died. The income from the farm and sawmill barely support his family, and they live in increasing poverty, exacerbated by his wife Zeena’s illness. At the time when Ethan married Zeena, he had planned to move to a town, to study and work as an engineer, an occupation he is more suited to than farming. But he quickly becomes convinced that Zeena’s physical and psychological weaknesses make this impossible. Though reticent, Ethan has a sociable streak that comes alive in congenial company. Sadly, his wife, whom he marries predominantly in order to have company in the harsh winter after the death of his mother, falls silent and takes refuge in hypochondriacal illnesses. The marriage quickly becomes mired in misery, though Ethan dutifully cares for his wife in her invalid state.
Ethan falls in love with Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to help Zeena with the housework. He shares with Mattie a spiritual love of nature, and she brings out his joyful side. For a long time, he does not act on his feelings, being a man of strong moral sense. But when Zeena shows signs of wanting to get rid of Mattie, he has sporadic fits of determination to leave Zeena and run away with Mattie. Ethan, by nature a dreamer who engages in fantasies of what could be, finds it impossible to translate his desires into action. This can be put down partly to the frozen climate, partly to the trap of poverty, and partly to Ethan’s moral scruples about deceiving others and abandoning his wife. The most courageous decision he makes is agreeing to the suicide pact, but it is Mattie’s idea, not his, and he merely gives in to it.
Zeena Frome (formerly Zeena or Zenobia Pierce) : Ethan Frome’s cousin, who becomes his wife after she nurses his invalid mother before her death. Ethan asks her to marry him because he cannot face spending the winter alone and in silence after his mother’s death. Shortly after their marriage, she falls silent and increasingly takes refuge in her hypochondriacal illnesses. She is withered, bony and unattractive in appearance, and whining, ungenerous, caustic and humorless in character. In spite of her sickliness, she, not Ethan, rules the Frome household.
Zeena’s penniless cousin Mattie Silver comes to stay in order to help her in the house. Zeena appears to suspect that Ethan has feelings for Mattie, but says nothing. When she leaves the farm to go to visit the new doctor in Bettsbridge, the cat appears to take on the role of her agent, sitting in Zeena’s chair between Mattie and Ethan and breaking Zeena’s favorite pickle dish. Zeena blames Mattie for taking the dish down from the closet, as she never wanted it to be used, and shows her emotions for the first time: the pickle dish is, she says, the thing she prizes most in the world. Zeena sends Mattie away and intends to replace her with a hired girl.
After Ethan’s and Mattie’s accident, Zeena appears to gain strength, and becomes their carer.
Harmon Gow : The “village oracle,” who knows something about everyone in Starkfield. Gow used to drive the stage-coach before the days of the trolley. He tells the narrator some facts about Ethan Frome, but has little insight into his story.
Andrew Hale : A builder, Ned Hale’s father, and a friend of Ethan’s. To avoid having to drive Zeena to catch the train to see the doctor, Ethan give sthe excuse that he has to collect payment for wood from Hale. To cover for his lie, he has to ask Hale for an advance payment, which Hale genially refuses. Later, Ethan has the idea of asking Hale again for payment so that he can run away with Mattie. But he cannot bring himself to deceive the kindly Hales, and does not ask again.
Ned Hale : The son of Andrew Hale and the fiancï¿½, and later the husband, of Ruth Varnum. Ned and Ruth’s romance is contrasted with the frustrated relationship between Ethan and Mattie. Ned is no longer alive when the narrator comes to Starkfield.
Mrs Ned Hale : The kindly middle-aged widow of Ned Hale, whose unmarried name was Ruth Varnum. The narrator lodges at her house during his stay in Starkfield. Mrs Hale’s refinement and education sets her apart from the rest of the Starkfield community. At first she is reticent on the subject of Ethan Frome, due to her distress at his tragic story. She is the first to see Ethan and Mattie after their “smash-up,” as they are brought to her the Hale house. She and Mattie had been close friends and Mattie was to be her bridesmaid at her wedding to Ned Hale. But after the accident, she finds that Matttie grows sour.
Mrs Hale visits the Fromes frequently after the accident but feels that her visits make things worse. By the time the narrator comes to stay with her, she is only visiting the Fromes about twice a year. The narrator conquers her initial reserve and she is able to complete the story of what happened to Ethan and Mattie after the accident.
The narrator: An engineer, who is sent by his employer to Starkfield to do a job. Finding himself kept in Starkfield by a carpenters’ strike, he ends up staying most of the winter. He becomes intrigued by Ethan Frome and makes it his business to find out more, whereupon he relates the story to the reader. The narrator is probably male, since engineering work was not then often done by women and because he freely interacts with the people of Starkfield – a type of social freedom rarely enjoyed by women. However, his gender is never explicitly stated.
Mattie Silver : Zeena’s penniless cousin, who comes to live with the Fromes to help with the housework. She is vital, attractive and cheerful, and Ethan falls in love with her. It is at first difficult to judge to what extent she reciprocates his feelings, but towards the end of the novel, she lets her guard drop and admits that she loves him. Because she is not such a fully drawn character as Ethan, and circumstances grant them little time together, it is not easy to predict whether their relationship would stand the test of time. Another point of debate is how much Ethan sees Mattie as she is and loves her for herself, or how much his feelings for her are a kind of rebellion against Zeena and his miserable marriage. However, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Ethan and she do seem to possess an easy and almost mystical connection.
Mattie has the edge over Ethan when it comes to making courageous decisions. It is she who thinks up the idea of the suicide pact, and Ethan goes along with it in spite of initial resistance.
After the accident, Mattie turns into a version of Zeena, a sour and complaining invalid.
Jotham Powell : The Fromes’ hired man.
Ruth Varnum : See Mrs Ned Hale