This passage touches upon several of the novel's motiffs. The description communicates the ideas of coldness, loneliness, isolation, and sterility--the absence of warmth and life. The land is buried under snow; the only sign of natural life is an orchard, but its trees are starving and "writhing over a hillside." The connotation is clear; this is an environment that negates life and growth. Only "outcroppings of slate" seem to defeat the presence of snow. Stone is strong; all that is weak gives way to the snow, including the hemlock boughs that are bent to the ground beneath its weight. The farm house "huddles" against the winter landscape in its solitary appearance. It is "one of these lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier."
As a work of naturalism in literature, Ethan Frome develops the idea that nature itself is one of the forces that controls Ethan's fate. The scene described in this passage can be interpreted as a metaphor for Ethan's life--both before Mattie's arrival and after their suicide attempt.