Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Prologue | Summary



During a cold, bleak winter in Starkfield, Massachusetts, an unnamed narrator describes how he came to know Ethan Frome, a local curiosity and recluse. The narrator is in town for an engineering job. Every morning he watches Ethan Frome, whom he describes as a "ruin of a man," climb out of his wagon and "drag himself" to the post office, "checking each step like the jerk of a chain." Harmon Gow, an old stagecoach driver, says Ethan has been this way since his "smash-up" 24 years earlier. The narrator notes Ethan rides into town every day at noon to collect his mail even though he rarely receives more than a copy of the newspaper or medical pamphlets addressed to his wife, Zeena.

Harmon Gow tells the narrator more about Ethan's solitude, saying, "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away." Intrigued the narrator asks more questions, learning Ethan stayed because first his parents were sick, then his wife, and then he was injured in the "smash up." Harmon's gossipy story only serves to pique the narrator's interest; he longs to know more, particularly because after only a few months he understands the deeper meaning of Gow's analysis, "he's been in Starkfield too many winters."

Hoping to learn more about Ethan's history the narrator inquires with his landlady, Mrs. Ned Hale (née Ruth Varnum). Mrs. Hale, typically quick to gossip, is unusually restrained about Ethan's past. Her silence further motivates the curious narrator to learn more. Opportunity arises when a livestock epidemic sweeps through town, making transportation difficult. Gow suggests the narrator hire Ethan to drive him to business meetings since his horse is well enough to make the journey. He also hints Ethan "wouldn't be sorry to earn a dollar" because both his farm and saw mill are struggling: "Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping."

For the next week Ethan picks the narrator up and drives him silently to and from his business meetings. Once Ethan shows interest in the narrator's science magazine, but the conversation goes no further. One morning the narrator has scheduled a business meeting in another town and Ethan is supposed to drive him to the train station. There is a terrible snowstorm and the train station is closed, so Ethan drives the narrator all the way to the next town, miles away, in the driving snow. On the way back it's too cold for the horse to continue, so Ethan invites the narrator to stay at his house until the storm clears. It is here that the narrator discovers the rest of Ethan's story.


The prologue of the novella sets the story frame, whose purpose is primarily to create suspense around Ethan Frome's story. Through the narrator's observations the reader develops a strong desire to learn the story of the accident and solve the riddle of Ethan's isolation. The narrator has no reason to be intrigued by the story except he feels a kinship to Ethan who, like the narrator himself, has been in Starkfield for too long. The difference, of course, is the narrator has only been in town for a few months while Ethan has spent his entire life here, ending up "the ruin of a man."

Parallels between the narrator and Ethan grow when the narrator learns Ethan is interested, or used to be interested, in science. Their conversation about the science magazine is particularly revealing because Ethan shows "a queer note of resentment ... at his own ignorance." Suspense grows as the narrator learns Ethan was held back from exploring his future or chasing his dreams. In failing to escape Starkfield, Ethan appears to have given up his identity, becoming "part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe."

Starkfield itself provides the perfect background for this tragedy. Everything about the town stifles Ethan Frome, his happiness, and his dreams. Even the name is depressing and bleak. Throughout the entire novella Starkfield is in a perpetual state of winter, highlighting loneliness and isolation, two important themes in the story. Ethan himself seems "frozen" in place, unable to leave or grow after spending "too many winters" in the small town. The depressing state of Ethan's life is further highlighted by his singular errand each day: picking up the mail. In the entire time the narrator observes Ethan, he never receives more than a newspaper and medical pamphlets, further highlighting the social isolation in which he lives. Most people would abandon their mail collection or collect less frequently, but Ethan's punctual daily pickup characterizes him as someone who doesn't break others' expectations.

Starkfield also has the typical "small town" feel, in which everyone knows everyone else's private business. Harmon Gow is eager to share gossipy bits of information with the curious narrator, but others, like Mrs. Ned Hale, are reserved. Mrs. Ned Hale is obviously emotional about Ethan's story, particularly the accident, which only adds to the narrator's suspense. In all the gossip it becomes clear Ethan is a product of external forces: his parents' deaths, his wife's sickness, and the accident. Little is known about his internal thoughts or emotions. When the narrator is finally invited into Ethan's home, he puts together "this vision of [Ethan's] story," a phrasing that suggests the following chapters are fantasy, not reality, for the narrator, having been pieced together from the townsfolks' various stories and the narrator's own imagination; this lends an air of unreliability to the entire telling.

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