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to lead us into the story, Wharton is able to create further psychological distance between the reader and the already withdrawn Frome.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.