There are two endings in Ethan Frome. The first is right after Mattie and Ethan crash into the elm tree, at the end of Chapter 9. The second ending happens at the end of the Epilogue, 24 years later.
It is this second ending that makes the story brilliant, but also earns it a high rating on our creepy-meter. In the pre-accident part of the story, Mattie and Ethan seem to think that the best they can hope for is to be able to continue living together with Zeena, and seeing each other as often as possible. This impractical desire comes true in a hideous way. The second ending reveals that the characters have undergone gruesome and not-so-gruesome transformations, but that they are all three still living together in the poverty stricken Frome home.
The second ending also leaves us with a new mystery. What exactly did Mattie say to Ruth when she woke up after the accident? Why couldn't Ruth bear to repeat it to the narrator? Whatever it was, it, combined with the change (for the worse) in Mattie's personality, leads Ruth to speak the novella's final lines:
There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn't live. Well, I say it's a pity she did. I said it right out to our minister once, and he was shocked at me. Only he wasn't with me that morning when she first came to... And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues. (Epilogue.27)
That's some pretty chilling stuff. We realize there are lots of things going on in this final paragraph, and we want to help break it down. The first shocking thing that Ruth says is that if Mattie had died, Ethan could have lived. At this point we can be pretty sure that living for Ethan would mean escaping Starkfield, Zeena, and finding a place where his educational and social needs could be met. In short, this has to do with the getting away that we hear so much about. Is this what Ruth means? Does she mean that if Mattie had died Ethan could have left Starkfield?
These kinds of questions reveal why "Morality and Ethics" is an important theme in Ethan Frome. Ruth raises the question: is Ethan's life somehow worth more than Mattie's? Even if it was, how could Ruth be so sure that Mattie's death would have given Ethan life? Does Ruth know that Mattie and Ethan were in love? If so, does Ruth consider this a moral or ethical crime because Ethan and Zeena were married? Why does she seem to blame Mattie, but not Ethan? Is this a comment on views toward women living at the turn of the century in America?
We'll leave you to think about these questions. Let's move on to Ruth's statement that everyone in the Frome house would be better off dead. That's harsh. We can see why she would think that these people lead miserable lives, but her reason for why they would be better off dead is really bizarre. Glance at it again. She says it's because dead women "have got to hold their tongues." In other words, if Ethan and those women were dead, he wouldn't have to listen to them talk.
Ruth seems incredibly biased toward Ethan, but she also sounds like somebody who doesn't like women very much. If a man spoke these lines we would call him a misogynist (a woman hater). By placing these lines in the mouth of a woman, Edith Wharton is able to get at the pervasive vision of women as inferior that ran rampant in those days. In fact, this opinion was so commonly held that many women believed it, too. Another way of looking at this quote is to say that Ruth dislikes anyone who speaks abusively – which Mattie apparently does quite vocally, and Zeena does rather quietly.
The second ending is also hideously ironic, and yet another example of how when Ethan gets something he wishes for (which is rare). What Ethan gets will likely be damaged, a twisted mockery of what he had in mind.
One important thing Ethan wishes for is a house without silence. Remember, Ethan went as far as marrying Zeena in order to avoid living in a house of silence. Unfortunately, she stopped talking almost as soon as she moved in. Ethan is always fighting silence, and always yearning for friendly voices. He gets the voices – it's not quiet with both Zeena and Mattie around – but it doesn't sound too friendly. We have to wonder if this is better than being alone, or better than silence? The situation is probably not better than escaping Starkfield.
The ending turns Ethan Frome into a cautionary tale, a warning to the readers that not following your dreams can have serious negative consequences.