Finding himself laid up in the small New England town of Starkfield for the winter, the narrator sets out to learn about the life of a mysterious local named Ethan Frome, who had a tragic accident some twenty years earlier. After questioning various locals with little result, the narrator finally comes to learn the details of Ethan’s “smash-up” (as the locals call it) when a violent snowstorm forces the narrator into an overnight stay at the Frome household.
Going back to that tragic year, we find Ethan walking through snowy Starkfield at midnight. He arrives at the village church, where lights in the basement reveal a dance. Ethan loiters by the window, transfixed by the sight of a young girl in a cherry-colored scarf. He has come to the church to fetch his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has been living with the Fromes for over a year, helping around the house. Eventually, we learn that Mattie is the girl in the red scarf—and the object of Ethan’s affection.
When the dance lets out, Ethan hangs back to keep his presence unknown. Mattie refuses the offer of a ride from another young man named Denis Eady and begins the walk home alone. Ethan catches up with her. As they continue on their way together, Ethan experiences a sense of thrill in Mattie’s presence, and the tension between the two becomes apparent. However, the tension dissipates when they arrive home and Zeena, Ethan’s sickly, shrewish wife, who has kept a late-night vigil in anticipation of their return, greets them. She regards the dynamic between her husband and her cousin with obvious suspicion, and Ethan goes to bed in a state of unease, without a word to Zeena and with thoughts only of Mattie.
The next day Ethan spends the morning cutting wood and returns home to find his wife prepared for a journey. She has decided to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, where she will spend the night with some distant relatives. Excited by the prospect of an evening alone with Mattie, Ethan quickly assents to his wife’s plan. He goes into town to make a lumber sale, but he hurries so as to return to Mattie in time for supper.
That evening, tensions run high between Ethan and Mattie. Although the two never consummate or even verbalize their passions, their mutual feelings hang palpably between them, unspoiled by the house’s many reminders of the absent Zeena. Catastrophe threatens when the cat shatters Zeena’s favorite pickle dish, which Mattie had taken out to celebrate their dinner together, but Ethan quickly pieces the shards together and tucks the broken dish back in its place. After supper, with Mattie busy at her sewing work, Ethan contemplates an outright demonstration of his affections, but he stops short of full disclosure. Just after eleven, the two turn in for the night without so much as touching.
The next morning, Ethan remains eager to reveal his feelings to Mattie, but the presence of his hired man, Jotham Powell, coupled with his own inhibitions, prevent him from making a move. Ethan makes a run into town to pick up some glue for the pickle dish. When he arrives back at the farm, expecting to find Mattie alone, she informs him that Zeena has returned. Quickly collecting himself, Ethan visits the bedroom to greet his wife. Zeena, however, is in no mood for kindnesses and bitterly informs Ethan that her health is failing rapidly. In light of this fact, Zeena announces, she plans to replace Mattie with a more efficient hired girl. Ethan privately resents Zeena’s decision but keeps the bulk of his anger to himself.
Going down to the kitchen, Ethan’s passions spill over, and he kisses Mattie zealously. He tells Mattie of Zeena’s plan to dismiss her, but their moment together is interrupted by Zeena herself, who had originally declined to come down to dinner but has changed her mind. After the meal, Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish while in search of some medicines and, in her rage, grows all the more determined to chase Mattie out.
That evening, Ethan retreats to his makeshift study, where he contemplates the decision that lies before him. Unable to tolerate Mattie’s dismissal, but effectively unable to prevent it, Ethan briefly considers eloping with Mattie, and even begins to draft a letter of farewell to Zeena. However, in a sober evaluation of his financial situation, Ethan comes to realize the impossibility of running away and falls asleep in a state of hopelessness.
At breakfast the next morning, Zeena announces the day’s plans for Mattie’s departure and the arrival of the new hired girl. At mid-morning, having finished his tasks on the farm, Ethan steals into town on a desperate errand. His plan, hatched on the fly, is to make a second attempt to collect an advance from Andrew Hale on a recently delivered lumber load, in hopes of financing his elopement with Mattie after all. On his way down the hill Ethan encounters the Hale sleigh, and, in passing, Hale’s wife praises him greatly for his patience in caring for the ailing Zeena. Her kind words serve to check his plan, and he returns to the farm with a guilty conscience.
Against Zeena’s wishes, Ethan decides to bring Mattie to the station himself. In a fit of nostalgia, he takes her by a roundabout route, and they eventually end up stopping at the crest of a village hill in order to take a sledding adventure they had once proposed but had never undertaken. A successful first run prompts Mattie to suggest a second, but with a different purpose in mind. She asks Ethan to run the sled into the elm tree at the foot of the hill, allowing them to spend their last moments together. Ethan initially rejects her proposal but is slowly won over, and they take their positions on the sled, locking themselves in a final embrace. In the wake of the collision, Ethan comes to consciousness dazedly, reaching out to feel the face of the softly moaning Mattie, who opens her eyes and weakly utters his name.
Jumping forward twenty years, we find ourselves back in the company of the narrator as he enters the Frome household. Inside, he meets the gaze of two frail and aging women, and takes stock of the house’s squalid conditions. Frome apologizes for the lack of heat in the house and introduces the narrator to the woman preparing their supper—his wife, Zeena—and to the seated, paralyzed woman in the chair by the fire—Miss Mattie Silver.
The next day, the narrator returns to town, where he lodges with Mrs. Ned Hale and her mother, Mrs. Varnum. Sensing their curiosity, he gives a brief account of his evening in the Frome household, and after supper he settles down to a more intimate discussion with Mrs. Hale. Together, they mourn the tragic plight of the silent, cursed man and the two women fated to keep him company during the long New England winter nights.