Ethan Frome is the novella's protagonist and tragic hero. Ethan's entire life is marked by poverty and his indecision and doubt. First he must give up his education to care for his ailing parents, then to tend to his sick wife. Ethan never stands up for himself or bucks social expectation. He suffers in agonizing silence as life and happiness pass him by. He sees a glimmer of hope for his future when he falls in love with Mattie Silver, yet he remains emotionally incapable of running away with her. When she suggests suicide at the end of the novella, Ethan originally agrees but flinches at the last moment, horrifically injuring himself and Mattie. His story may serve as a warning about the dangers of passivity and doubt in a cold, harsh world.
Zenobia "Zeena" Frome is Ethan's cousin and wife. Zeena first came to live on the Frome farm to help care for Ethan's parents. When they both died Ethan felt indebted to Zeena and asked her to stay as his wife. Originally he dreamed of moving together to a big city to start over, but the thought overwhelmed Zeena, whose sickliness eventually made such ideas impossible. Zeena's adult life is marked by her many illnesses. She manipulates Ethan through her illness, using her strange symptoms to maintain power over Ethan's future. As a result Zeena is seen as the ultimate tyrant, completely self-serving and negative.
In a direct contrast to Zeena, Mattie Silver, Zeena's young cousin, is the picture of beauty and health. She, much like Zeena, arrives in Starkfield to care for an ailing relative. Unlike Zeena, however, Mattie is a romantic, more interested in nature and daydreaming than medicine or homemaking. She forms a strong bond with Ethan, much to Zeena's disliking. When Zeena cruelly kicks her out of the house, Mattie has nowhere to turn and is truly alone. Desperate she kisses Ethan, declares her love for him, and suggests suicide. Given her emotional state, however, it's unclear whether Mattie is desperate to be with Ethan or simply desperate not to be left alone.