Ethan Frome's title character wants education almost as much as he wants love. His fine mind can't reach its potential because he's never been able to concentrate on its development. He sacrificed his education to care for his parents, and ended up stuck on a farm in a backwards town. If Ethan had abandoned his sick parents, he could have gotten that education he desired, but he probably also would have been wracked with guilt. Though more subtly explored than Ethan's lack of education, the lack of education for the novel's women might leave a 21st century reader appalled. Without education, the characters feel they lack options.
Ethan Frome shows how a limited education equals limited options.
The character of Mattie Silver is used to express the problem of education in Edith Wharton's time, particularly where women are concerned.