The novel was criticized by Lionel Trilling as lacking in moral or ethical significance. The New York Times called Ethan Frome "a compelling and haunting story." Edith Wharton was able to write an appealing book and separate it from her other works, where her characters in Ethan Frome are not of the elite upper class. However, the problems that the characters endure are still consistently the same, where the protagonist has to decide whether or not to fulfill their duty or follow their heart. Some critics have read the novel as a veiled autobiography where they have interpreted the likeness between Ethan's situation with his wife in the novel to Wharton's unhappy marriage to her husband, Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton. She began writing Ethan Frome in the early 1900s when she was still married. Wharton based the narrative of Ethan Frome on an accident that had occurred in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she had traveled extensively and had come into contact with one of the victims of the accident. Wharton found the notion of the tragic sledding crash to be irresistible as a potential extended metaphor for the wrongdoings of a secret love affair. However, the critic Lionel Trilling thinks that the ending is "terrible to contemplate," but that "the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it."
Jeffrey Lilburn notes that some find "the suffering endured by Wharton's characters is excessive and unjustified," but others see the difficult moral questions addressed and note that it "provides insightful commentary on the American economic and cultural realities that produced and allowed such suffering." Trilling and other critics found Ethan Frome to have no moral content, but Elizabeth Ammons disagreed with that concept. Wharton was always careful to label Ethan Frome as a tale rather than a novel. Critics did take note of this when reviewing the book. Ammons compared the work to fairy tales. She found a story that is "as moral as the classic fairy tale" and that functions as a "realistic social criticism." The moral concepts, as described by Ammons, are revealed with all of the brutality of Starkfield's winters. Comparing Mattie Silver and Zeena Frome, Ammons suggests that the Matties will grow as frigid and crippled as the Zeenas, so long as such women remain isolated and dependent. Wharton cripples Mattie, says Lilburn, but has her survive in order to demonstrate the cruelty of the culture surrounding women in that period.