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.