There is an author's introduction to Ethan Frome, written by Wharton in 1922. It is included in most editions of the novel. In her introduction Wharton explains how and why she went about writing Ethan Frome: in her experience of literature set in rural New England, she had seen little that resembled the land as she saw it. Earlier literary portraits romanticized poverty and left out the harshness of the land, overlooking the "outcropping granite" (9). Wharton also explains her scheme for the novel: a sophisticated first-person narrator collects the different parts of the tale from various sources, after which he presents a unified vision of the story.
"I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story." Ethan Frome is framed by a first-person narrator who did not witness any of the events of Ethan Frome's story. The unnamed narrator is an outsider, who came to know Frome while working for a local power plant and staying in the harsh rural town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The narrator sees Ethan Frome by chance outside the Starkfield post office, and Frome immediately makes a great impression on him. Frome is extremely tall, and he has been lame ever since an accident twenty-four years ago. His face is grizzled, perpetually locked into a harsh expression. Though he seems to have an easy power in his body, when the narrator sees him he knows he is looking at the "ruin of a man."
Fascinated by Frome, the narrator tries to find out more about him. His first source of information is the stage driver, Harmon Gow. From Harmon, the narrator gathers that Frome has never been able to leave Starkfield; although "most of the smart ones get away" (14), Ethan has been stuck in Starkfield since youth. At the Frome farm, there has always been someone to care for. First there were Ethan's parents, and then his wife, and then there was "the smash-up." Harmon tells the narrator some of Frome's story, but the narrator senses that "the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps" (14).
The narrator reflects that he quickly learned the harshness of Starkfield life. The winter he stayed in Starkfield, he was working on a job at the Corbury Junction power house. He stayed in Starkfield because it was the nearest inhabitable place. Although he initially felt invigorated by the clear blue skies and shocking white of the snow-covered land, when he saw the periods of blue sky and glittering snow followed by weeks of cold and darkness he began to understand the numbed character of the people, the "deadness of the community" (15).
The narrator lodges with a widow named Mrs. Ned Hale, the daughter of the previous generation's town lawyer. Lawyer Varnum's house is the grandest home in town, but the house has a careworn feel to it; clearly, the family has fallen on more meager times. Nightly, the narrator listens to the old widow talk about Starkfield and its people, but on the subject of Ethan Frome she is oddly silent.
Denis Eady, the rich local grocer, provides for the narrator's daily transportation to Corbury Flats, where he catches the train to Corbury Junction for work. When Eady's horses fall ill, Harmon Gow suggests that the narrator hire Ethan Frome. Times are (and have been) hard for the Frome farm, and Frome could use the extra money. So for a brief period, every morning Frome arrives with his horse-drawn sleigh to drive the narrator to the Flats. Frome is very taciturn, usually responding only minimally to the narrator's questions. One day, the narrator leaves a book on biochemistry in the sleigh by accident. When Frome picks him up later that day, the narrator sees the book in Frome's hands. Frome is fascinated by the book, as well as humbled: "There are things in that book that I didn't know the first word about" (18). The narrator lends the book to Frome, touched by the contrast between Frome's curiosity and the limitations of his environment.
After Frome has been driving the narrator for a week, an incredibly blizzard disables the railroad lines. Ethan Frome arrives as always, offering to take the narrator all the way to Corbury Junction: a good ten miles. Amazed by the generosity of the offer, the narrator accepts. On the way home later that day, the snowfall becomes stronger. The going gets quite rough, until it becomes clear that making it all the way back to town is impossible. Frome's home is on the way. He offers to put the narrator up for the night. The narrator tells us, "It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story" (22).
For readers who only know Wharton through her finely crafted novels-of-manners, such as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, the spare and simple style of Ethan Frome may come as a surprise. Wharton is modifying her style to suit her subject: this is not a novel of manners set in New York's upper social circles, but a short novel about a doomed love affair in rural New England.
Wharton may have had some anxiety about the distance between herself and her subject matter in Ethan Frome. She was no farm girl, and her own upbringing had been in the privileged world of New York aristocrats. Acknowledgment of the difference may explain the layers she places between the reader and the story. The narrator, like Wharton, is a man of greater means and education than the people of Starkfield. Although readers may find his descriptions of the townspeople occasionally condescending, the narrator's honest criticism of the rural world is a reaction against novels that romanticize rural people and settings. In Ethan Frome, there is honest and direct acknowledgment of the gap between townspeople and narrator in privilege, education, and sophistication. In his distance from the rural world, we can assume that the narrator acts not only as Wharton's double but also as our own. He is our guide into the town of Starkfield, which is probably a world quite different from the world of the novel's readers.
Having already inserted the fictional narrator between the reader and the story, she also makes the narrator a second-hand witness of the events. He has seen nothing of Frome's story. Nor has he gotten a complete account: he acknowledges, before we begin Chapter 1, that the following is a "vision" of Frome's story. Wharton does not attempt to sell her work as journalism, or documentary-style fiction. She is admitting to the distance between herself, the reader, and the story and world of Ethan Frome. In acknowledging the distance, she frees herself to use imagination as the means for getting to the heart of Frome's story. This is a "vision" of Frome's tragedy, which will communicate the parts of the story that Wharton finds most compelling.
Some of the novel's themes are set up in this brief opening. The connection between the land and the people is a recurring theme of the novel. The narrator, an outsider, expresses dismay at the incredible harshness of the Starkfield winters. The name of the town is symbolic of the character of the land and its people. This is not a bountiful or generous land. A living must be scraped from the soil. Frome's own farm mirrors the name of the town, as his nearly barren soil provides barely enough for his family's survival. To say that a man or woman has spent "one too many winters in Starkfield" has become a grim town joke, and after the narrator experiences the darkness of the winters he understands why. The harshness and power of the land are mirrored by Ethan Frome, whose body still exudes strength despite its lameness. But he is a "ruin of a man," and his face shows how much he has suffered.
Isolation is another important theme. Rural New England in winter is a land under siege, with tiny towns and tinier farms like little islands separated by vast expanses of cold and snow. The isolation is both physical and emotional. The isolation becomes personal for Ethan Frome, whose tragedy has removed him from the other people of Starkfield. The narrator remarks that in a town like Starkfield, people's lives are harsh enough so that they have little time to alleviate the pain and troubles of others.
Lost potential is a third theme, closely connected to the two themes listed above. As Starkfield is not a nurturing world, Ethan's curiosity and intellect have had few outlets. His show of lively interest in the biochemistry book is a poignant moment: this fifty-two year-old man, with few practical uses for biochemistry, is brought to life by this book. It hints at Ethan's potential, which will be disclosed in later chapters. The disparity between his intellectual curiosity and the limitations of his environment is painful. Ethan is not only the ruin of the man that he was, but the ruin of the man that he could have been.
Determinism is an important theme in this novel and in many of Wharton's other books. Starting with late-nineteenth century American literature, exposure to Darwin and thinkers like Huxley and Spencer began to have a strong influence on American novelists. Naturalism, the school of thought that makes individuals subject to forces of heredity and environment, was a new philosophical force in novels and plays. Individuals have little or no agency, and the environment destroys or nurtures as it sees fit. A person is either made to adapt or made to fail. In Ethan Frome, the influence of this Darwin-inspired outlook is undeniable. Wharton links it to an older form of determinism, the harsh philosophy of New England's old Calvinists, by choosing Starkfield, Massachusetts as her setting. The historical backdrop of Puritanism is for atmosphere rather than for religious instruction; there is little God in Wharton. The environment, which can be natural, cultural, or situational, is the force that decides men's fates.
We are now twenty-some years farther back in the past. Young Ethan Frome walks through the heart of town, passing Eady's new brick store and the grand Varnum house. It is a cold and crisp winter night, and the feeling reminds Frome of a concept he learned from his studies in science. About five years ago, he enrolled in technological courses at a college in Worcester; his father's death ended Ethan's higher education, as Ethan had to return home to care for his mother and the farm.
There's a dance in the basement of the Church, and Ethan positions himself by the window so he can see what's going on. He is there to pick up Mattie Silver, the cousin of his wife. He strains to catch a glimpse of Mattie; when he finds her, she is dancing with Denis Eady, the son of the Irish grocer. Ethan feels an intense surge of jealousy when he sees the happiness on Mattie's face and the look of ownership on Eady's.
Mattie has lived at the Frome farm for over a year. She came to be the help for Ethan's wife, Zeena; in exchange for her housekeeping, Mattie gets free room and board, but receives no pay. On these nights when she goes for a dance or other social event in town, it is Ethan's job to escort her back. After a hard day of work the extra two miles to and from town is tiring, but Ethan loves the time alone with Mattie. Like him, she is sensitive to natural beauty; in her, he has found someone to talk to about the beauty of the land and the small bits of science he knows. Her vitality invigorates him. He has fallen in love with her.
He does not know if Zeena has any inkling of his feelings for Mattie. Zenobia is a sickly, whining woman, but she sometimes surprises Ethan by proving more observant than he'd hoped. She's noticed that since Mattie's coming, Ethan has been shaving every day. She mentioned the change obliquely, surprising Ethan because he had assumed that Zeena was oblivious to everything but her own endless parade of health problems.
The first glimpse of Ethan Frome as a young man brings into relief the theme of lost potential. We learn that he began studies but had to cut them short after the death of his father. Poverty's harshness is a recurring theme: because of financial limitations, Ethan had no choice but to return home and care for his mother and the farm. Poverty also brings Mattie Silver to the Frome farm, and after the accident it will force her to stay there. The major events of Ethan's life have not been choices: things have happened to him, and he has been forced to endure them.
His isolation on the farm has been relieved by Mattie Silver. She seems to share a love for natural beauty, and Ethan finally has someone with whom he can talk. But Ethan is already married, and this first scene establishes Ethan as one who remains an outsider. We see him in the cold, watching the dance from the outside, looking through a window at happiness he does not share. His poverty, circumstances, and sensitive disposition have left him isolated. His marriage is a loveless match with a sick and whining woman. Illicit and frustrated passion is an important theme. Ethan's feelings can find few outlets. He looks forward to his rare walks with Mattie from town; he shaves every day; he watches Mattie through a window. But as he sees her dancing with Denis Eady, he realizes how difficult his situation is. Wharton gives us no clue about her feelings for Ethan, so we are made to feel as clueless as he.
Wharton also creates a feeling of loss and transience. Many of the landmarks we saw in the narrator's opening are here. The difference is that in Frome's youth the buildings are new and handsome, whereas by the time the narrator sees them they are old and faded. The fine mansion of the Varnums is mentioned prominently, as is the new brick store opened by Denis Eady's father. The first-person narrator of the opening mentioned these building in passing, and now the third-person narrator of Chapter 1 mentions them again. The tone is much more sensual in Chapter 1: there is a sense of the town as a living place, with smells and colors described evocatively. But we are looking at the past, and it is a far cry from the dead world the narrator of the opening shows us. The effect is a very bleak portrayal of the relationship between a small town and the passage of time. In a big city, old buildings become historic, or they are replaced by new buildings. In Starkfield, old buildings simply fall into disrepair. Family fortunes dwindle, and men like Ethan Frome fade and deteriorate as slowly and certainly as the buildings of their immediate environment.
As the dancers leave the Church basement, Frome hides behind the storm door. He sees Mattie waiting for him, but he is suddenly overcome with nervousness and shyness. As he watches, Denis Eady flirts with Mattie and invites her to take a ride on his sleigh; Frome cannot bring himself to interfere. Mattie seems to consider the offer, but she breaks away from Eady and tells him that she can't ride with him. When he insists, she rebuffs him more firmly, and sets off as if she's going to walk back to the Frome farm alone.
Ethan catches up with her, content that Mattie didn't go with Denis Eady. The link arms and take the long walk home. As they pass one of the town's best sledding hills, they talk about the possibility of "coasting" (sledding) some night when the moon is bright. Mattie mentions a sledding couple that nearly killed themselves on the big elm at the bottom of the hill; Ethan promises that she would be safe with him steering.
Ethan can't help but point out that she lingered after the dance. He says that he supposes that what people say is true: she'll be leaving the Frome farm before long. Mattie seems distressed by the idea, and her distress makes Ethan happy. Apparently, the idea of her leaving upsets her as much as it upsets him. They pass the Frome graveyard, and Ethan feels that the graves offer a promise of stability. Before, the graves always seemed to mock his desire to leave Starkfield. Near the end of the walk, Mattie stumbles and Ethan draws his arm up around her for support. It's the first time they've had contact so close, and they remain linked this way until the reach the door of the house. Usually, Zeena leaves the key for them under the mat. But the key isn't there, and Ethan worries that something has happened. He hears noises inside the house, and the door opens . . . revealing Zeena. She says that she felt too ill to sleep. After the happiness of the walk with Mattie, seeing Zeena is like the abrupt end of a pleasant dream: she is harsh, angular, flat-chested, with a mouth of false teeth. The lamplight exposes every crevasse of her harsh face. Tonight, Ethan dislikes the idea of Mattie seeing him go up to bed with his wife; he tries to invent some excuse for staying downstairs for a bit longer, but with the fire already out this behavior seems strange. After Zeena's surprise at his suggestion, as well as what seems to be a warning glance from Mattie, Ethan gives in and goes upstairs with his wife.
Wharton shows the difficulties of repressed and illicit passion, passion without any possible outlet. Ethan fears that Mattie might know how he feels, but he also despairs of her not knowing. He cannot bring himself to interrupt her interaction with Denis Eady: he waits for her to make a decision, even though the thought of her riding with Denis makes Ethan miserable. On the way home, he is constantly playing little games, trying to get some hint of how she feels about him. But because he is married, this is not a normal courtship. It is courtship without any possible goal. Frome cannot imagine life without Mattie, but he also cannot find any way to be with her.
Ethan Frome has very little agency. We see him here passively waiting for Mattie to make a decision about the sleigh ride with Denis Eady; on the walk home, we see him try to learn Mattie's feelings, knowing full well that there is little he can do no matter how she feels. The cemetery has always mocked his desire for freedom: it is full of Fromes who never escaped from Starkfield, and Ethan used to feel that the graves promised him the same fate. Tonight, he feels content with the idea that he and Mattie might stay at the farm together forever, but his fantasies are untenable. A real life wouldn't be possible with Zeena around.
His wish for Mattie to stay forever will ironically be fulfilled. This chapter is full of foreshadowing of the tragic fate awaiting Ethan and Mattie: note the discussion about sledding, in which Mattie mentions the couple that nearly had a terrible accident on the big elm tree at the bottom of the hill. Ethan swaggers, promising that he would be able to steer, but an observant reader will remember that the "smash-up" that will change Ethan's life is going to happen on that very hill.