At midnight, through an accumulated snowfall of some two feet, a young Ethan Frome walks the quiet streets of Starkfield. Near the edge of the village, he stops in front of the community church, where a dance is being held. He makes his way around the church’s perimeter and settles in front of a basement window, craning his neck to get a view of the festivities. The dance is concluding, and the assembled group is preparing to leave. But when the young, handsome, and energetic Denis Eady jumps back onto the dance floor and claps his hands, the musicians take up their instruments and the dance hall again fills with life.
Ethan focuses his attention on Mattie Silver, a girl wearing a cherry-colored scarf and dancing with Eady. She is cousin to Ethan’s wife, Zeena, and has been living with the Fromes as a housekeeper for over a year. Ethan, who has come to walk Mattie home from the dance, has become quite attached to her in the course of the year, finding a kinship with her in their mutual appreciation of nature. As he watches her whirling effortlessly among the pulsating crowd, he wonders why he had ever dreamed that the feelings of attraction might be mutual. It seems to him that her free and easy movement between partners indicates her indifference toward him.
Ethan recalls a recent conversation with Zeena, in which she suggested that Mattie might marry Denis Eady and that they would need to hire a new girl to help—“the doctor don’t want I should be left without anybody,” she insists. This memory disquiets him, and as he waits for Mattie, he begins to brood.
Beginning with Chapter I, Wharton plunges the reader into the story with a jolt of energy that is quite different from the more conversational tone of the narrator’s frame. The description of Starkfield at midnight, with the excited dancers whirling indoors while the world outside lies frozen, overflows with sensory details. Moreover, the warmth and richness of the scene inside the church creates a strong impression of the young Ethan as a man set apart from society. Married prematurely to an ailing, unattractive wife, Ethan feels despair at his exclusion from the revelry. Yet, he also takes a certain pleasure in his position as an unnoticed voyeur.
While the sensory richness of the first scene bursts suddenly into the mind of the reader, Wharton reveals factual information at a much more gradual pace. She tempers the scandal by composing it piecemeal, through a slow, subtle process of accumulated information, which keeps our minds open to the narrator’s own descriptions and analysis. At the outset, the young Ethan’s reason for gazing through the church window is unclear. We see that he is infatuated with a girl in a cherry-colored scarf, but his romantic interest only gains significance once Wharton discloses that Ethan is already a married man and that the object of his desire is his own wife’s cousin, who lives under his own roof. In light of these details, Ethan’s preoccupation with Mattie Silver takes on an illicit air.
Wharton presents and describes Denis Eady and Mattie Silver before giving them names or dialogue of their own. This approach achieves a certain realism, as we must observe these characters and make inferences about them, just as we would with new acquaintances in real life. Mattie, in particular, becomes burned into the reader’s consciousness through the focus of Ethan’s own consciousness—her twisting, fluttering, cherry-colored scarf. Brightly colored and shining vividly amid the matte, wintry landscape, the scarf marks Mattie as a person worthy of notice (her last name—Silver—likewise suggests that she flashes like metal and is therefore highly visible). The scarf’s redness, symbolizing devilishness or sin, suggests that Mattie may be a figure of wrongdoing or rebellion. As the plot unfolds, she does indeed come to embody transgression against social convention in the name of individual passions, a notion that takes on thematic import in the novel as a whole.