The life that Ethan lived, the plot of the story, could have been drastically changed, and most likely changed for the better had Ethan considered the effects of his actions and decisions upon himself. Ethan was an intelligent man, he had high dreams for himself as an engineer, and he wanted to have a life away from the ceaseless drudgery of life in Starksville. When his mother died leaving Zeena without a place to go, Ethan, being the kind man he was, offered to marry her because he felt obligated to do so. This decision however shut out his hopes for a better life. In order for Ethan to get an education he must have money. In order for Ethan to get money he must sell the farm.
And with a new wife to take care of he could not possibly manage it. Ethan’s decision to marry Zeena had fettered his social mobility and had brought about the backlash of Zeena’s discontent. Ethan further brought on the wrath of Zeena when he chose to get involved with Mattie. Ethan cared a great deal for Mattie and didn’t’ want Zeena to take her from him.
Because Mattie was not well suited to be a maid and frequently made mistakes Ethan would help her with her chores. Ethan also comforted her and tried to hide her shortcomings from Zeena. However his efforts to help Mattie ended up hurting him. Zeena was most definitely aware of Ethan’s fondness of Mattie; she insinuated this when she locked Ethan and Mattie out of the house.
Besides helping Mattie with her chores Ethan stood up for her and stood up for her in front of Zeena. When the cat broke the pickle dish when Zeena was away at seeing a doctor Ethan went out of his way to try to cover it up. He concocted a plan to buy some glue and put the dish back together so that Zeena wouldn’t notice. When that plan failed and Zeena found the broken dish, Ethan was willing to take the blame instead of Mattie. Ethan’s obvious affection for Mattie and his unselfish protection of her was perhaps the driving force behind Zeena’s campaign to get Mattie out of the house and get a more qualified hired girl, causing Ethan more grief.
Ethan had one last chance to get away from the ceaseless nagging of his wife. He had heard about a man who ran out west with the woman he loved and never came back. That was Ethan’s escape. Though Ethan desperately wanted to go away with Mattie, his conscience prevailed. In order for Ethan to go out west he would need money, a commodity he didn’t have.
Ethan was going to do some work for the Hales and he could have gotten an advance on his payment for it and used the money to go west with Mattie. But Ethan’s strict morals would not allow him to get money under false pretenses. Furthermore, he would have to leave Zeena (who he believed was ill) alone with no one to take care of her and no money. She would have to sell the farm and Ethan didn’t know if she would be all right.
Ethan’s decisions were influenced by his good-natured moral convictions. Unfortunately for Ethan and those he loved they were all wrong decisions. Ethan’s choices led to his poverty, his obligation to a woman he didn’t love, stopped him in his tracks whenever he had a way to escape, and finally led to his suicide attempt which left him and those he love in a worse position than before. By not becoming an engineer (and making money to move to the city which Zeena wanted), by marrying Zeena, by not taking the necessary steps to free himself from his hellish existence death became an appealing alternative for Ethan.
When Mattie suggested that they sled down the hill and purposefully hit the giant tree Ethan went along willingly. His final mistake, indirectly caused by his unselfish and moral character, was the one mistake he could never turn around. The sledding accident left Ethan and Mattie cripples for the remainder of their lives while Zeena (miraculously cured of her illness) was forced to nurse then as she had Ethan’s mother years ago.