What is the significance of this passage from Ethan Frome?

Abreast of the schoolhouse the road forked, and we dipped down a lane to the left, between hemlock boughs bent inward to their trunks by the weight of the snow. I had often walked that way on Sunday, and knew that the solitary roof showing through bare branches near the bottom of the hill was that of Frome’s saw-mill. It looked exanimate enough, with its idle wheel looming above the black stream dashed with yellow-white spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging under their white load. Frome did not even turn his head as we drove by, and still in silence we began to mount the next slope. About a mile farther, on a road I had never travelled, we came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard lay a field or two, their boundaries lost under drifts; and above the fields, huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, one of these lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.

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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. 

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