When I had been there a little longer . . . I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.
Due to a carpenters’ strike, an engineer (the narrator) spends the winter in the small Massachusetts town of Starkfield, where he comes to learn the tale of Ethan Frome through various sources. The narrator’s initial impression of Frome, whom he first encounters at the local post office, is of a silent and unapproachable man with an impressive build and posture. Frome is disfigured, and one of his most prominent characteristics is his scarred face, which was smashed in an accident almost a quarter of a century earlier.
Curious about the details of Frome’s accident and about Frome’s isolated rural existence, the narrator begins to press some of Starkfield’s residents for information. Harmon Gow, a local stagecoach driver, provides a few specifics but fails to understand and convey the deeper meaning of the story. Mrs. Ned Hale, born Ruth Varnum, the middle-aged widow with whom the narrator lodges, proves equally reticent on the subject of Frome.
When the livery stable horses fall ill from a local epidemic, the narrator is left without a way of getting to and from the train station each day for his work. Harmon Gow suggests that the narrator speak with Frome about catching a ride with him. For a week, Frome wordlessly brings the narrator to and from the station each day, a journey that takes nearly an hour each way. One day, after the narrator inadvertently leaves a biochemistry book in Frome’s carriage, the two men discover their mutual interest in the field, which leads to a brief interchange on the progress of science. The narrator lends Frome the book in hopes of prompting further conversation, but his hopes prove empty.
A few days later, a driving snowstorm blankets the countryside. The narrator’s usual train is delayed, so Frome decides to drive the narrator all the way to his place of business. During the ten-mile journey, they pass Frome’s farm, and Frome speaks hesitatingly to the narrator about his changed family fortunes. In silence, they push on through the remainder of the snowstorm, and when they arrive at their destination, the narrator quickly conducts his business before they set out for the return journey to Starkfield. At sunset the storm picks up again, and Frome’s horse has trouble keeping to the road in the dark. After a couple of miles of unsure progress, Frome is finally able to identify his gate through the mist and darkness.
The narrator, who has been walking alongside the horse, finds himself completely exhausted, and he suggests to Frome that they have come far enough. Frome agrees, implicitly offering to put him up for the evening. The narrator follows Frome to the barn to settle the horse for the evening, and the two men proceed to Frome’s house, a dilapidated building originally constructed in the shape of an L but from which one wing has been removed. In the hallway entrance, Frome shakes the snow from his boots as the voice of a woman drones from within. Frome then opens the inner door to the house and invites the narrator inside. As he speaks, the woman’s voice grows still.
The narrator’s suspicion that the deeper meaning of Ethan Frome’s story lies “in the gaps” between scattered details also guides us as readers. Wharton creates an enormous structural gap by beginning the novel near the end of its chronological progression, and the bulk of the novel serves to fill that gap. Because the telling of the tale commences near the conclusion of the drama’s events, Wharton is able to lend a tinge of inevitability to the ensuing narrative. The fact that all of the story’s events have already happened imbues them with a feeling of finality and fatality, a sense that, just as the events cannot now be altered, they could not then be avoided.
The subtle foreshadowing that Wharton deploys throughout the story may go unnoticed on a first reading, but it plays an instrumental role in the overall conception of this beautiful, tragic romance of Puritan New England. The very name of the town, Starkfield, evokes the bleak mood and rural atmosphere of the story. Images of snow, ice, and cold dominate the descriptive language of the story, forming one of the novel’s most important networks of motifs. Paying particularly close attention to the relationship between the landscape and its inhabitants, Wharton emphasizes the way geography shapes human lives. She paints Frome as an “incarnation” of the silent, melancholy, and frozen countryside. Frome’s cold demeanor is the emotional reflection of his physical environment.
Although it would be a mistake to identify Ethan Frome’s narrator as Edith Wharton herself, there is little evidence from which to shape a profile of the narrator as an individual wholly separate from Wharton. We may assume the narrator to be male, since, at the turn of the twentieth century, a woman would be unlikely to be involved in interstate business travel and even less likely to interact so casually with virtual strangers in a small-town environment. Nevertheless, the narrator never reveals his name nor, explicitly, his gender. By creating an unknown outsider to lead us into the story, Wharton is able to create further psychological distance between the reader and the already withdrawn Frome. To see the importance of this device, one need only imagine how different the story would be were it presented from the perspective of a local Starkfield resident.
The narrator’s perspective obtrudes little over the course of the book. The tone of most of the novel is one of detached omniscience—the narrator gives us Frome’s story as he (the narrator) has understood it after having gathered all of the facts. However, in this introductory section, the narrator asserts the limited nature of his understanding as he first became acquainted with Frome’s story, and the reader therefore receives a more subjective impression of Frome and his surroundings.
From the outset, the narrator found Frome “the most striking” resident of Starkfield as well as “the ruin of a man.” Frome’s imposing nature owes in part to his grotesque body and stiff face, which are the result of the briefly mentioned “smash-up” on which much of the story’s mystery rests. Frome’s farmhouse is symbolic of his own dilapidated state. Like its owner, the house has fallen on hard times and lost its original shape, and the narrator notes that he saw “in the diminished dwelling the image of [Frome’s] own shrunken body.”
Although the narrator notes Frome to be reserved and isolated, some of his interaction with the recluse reveals that Frome may not always have displayed such lack of passion and spirit. When he speaks briefly to the narrator about a trip he once took to Florida and about his former interest in the sciences, we see a hint of Frome as he once was. Additionally, despite his reticent nature, Frome proves willing to help the narrator when needed, and his offer to drive the ten miles up and back to the junction in a heavy snowstorm clearly exceeds the narrator’s expectations. But just as the narrator prepares to enter Frome’s house, we, as readers at the mercy of Wharton’s shifts in perspective, are left behind at the doorstep, left to take the longer road to understanding, which winds all the way back to the beginning of Frome’s story.