The novel is a framed narrative. The framing story concerns an unnamed male narrator spending a winter in Starkfield while in the area on business.
Author: Edith Wharton
The novel is a framed narrative. The framing story concerns an unnamed male narrator spending a winter in Starkfield while in the area on business. He spots a limping, quiet man around the village, who is somehow compelling in his demeanor and carriage. This is Ethan Frome, who is a lifelong resident and a local fixture of the community. Frome is described by the narrator as "the most striking figure in Starkfield", "the ruin of a man" with a "careless powerful look ... in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain". Curious, the narrator sets out to learn about him. He learns that Frome's limp arose from having been injured in a "smash-up" twenty-four years before, but further details are not forthcoming, and the narrator fails to learn much more from Frome's fellow townspeople other than that Ethan's attempt at higher education decades before was thwarted by the sudden illness of his father following an injury, forcing his return to the farm to assist his parents, never to leave again. Because people seem not to wish to speak other than in vague and general terms about Frome's past, the narrator's curiosity grows, but he learns little more.Chance circumstances arise that allow the narrator to hire Frome as his driver for a week. A severe snowstorm during one of their journeys forces Frome to allow the narrator to shelter at his home one night. Just as the two are entering Frome's house, the prologue ends and the framed story begins. The narration switches from the first-person narrator of the prologue to a limited third-person narrator. We then embark on the "first" chapter (Chapter I), which takes place twenty-four years prior.In Chapter I, Ethan is waiting outside a church dance for Mattie, his wife's cousin, who has for a year lived with Ethan and his sickly wife, Zeena (Zenobia), in order to help out around the house and farm. Mattie is given the occasional night off to entertain herself in town as partial recompense for helping care for the Fromes, and Ethan has the duty of walking her home. It is quickly clear that Ethan has deep feelings for Mattie. Passing the graveyard, he thinks in an intense moment of foreshadowing that, "We'll always go on living here together, and some day she'll lie there beside me." It also becomes clear that Zeena has observed enough to understand that he has these feelings and, understandably, she resents them.When Zeena leaves for an overnight visit to seek treatment for her various complaints and symptoms in a neighboring town, Ethan is excited to have an evening alone with Mattie. During this evening, the narrator reveals small actions that show that they each have feelings for the other, including a lingering of touching hands on the milk jug, although neither openly declares their love. Mattie makes supper and retrieves from a high shelf Zeena's treasured pickle dish, which Zeena, in a symbol of her stingy nature, never uses, in order to protect it. Mattie uses it to present Ethan with a simple supper, and disaster ensues when the Fromes' cat jumps on the table and knocks it off, shattering it beyond repair. Ethan tries to help by setting the dish's pieces neatly in the cupboard, presenting the false impression of wholeness if not examined closely, with plans to purchase some glue and fix it as soon as he can.