How does the setting affect the plot?
Edith Wharton is an amazing woman to study. Her writing focuses on everything from home decoration to satirizing the American situation in the late 1800's early 1900's. Edith was a member of the aristocratic group and lived in New York much of her life; however, she was not a happy member of this society. She loathed the rules and the hypocrisy of the aristocrats--especially the way men suppressed women's abilities and achievements.
Ethan Frome is written to satirize secret wants and society's rules on people. Ethan is married to Z, but he secretly loves Mattie (young, beautiful relative of Z's) who comes to live with them to help care for the house and Zeena who is ill. Zeena knows (woman's intuition) about the affair, and sends Mattie home. Ethan and Mattie take one more sled ride before she is set to leave and have a horrid crash which cripples them both. Zeena has a miraculous recovery and becomes the caregiver to the two of them. Their accident has changed the way they feel about each other and about life in general.
The setting is stark, lonely, winter. Zeena's sarcastic and bitter personality adds to the ugliness of the whole scene. Without this, Ethan would never have sought comfort in Mattie. It also helps to showcase the poverty level of the family--both monetary, emotional, and spiritual. There is a lack of love and faith in the beginning. Everything changes with the crash.
Ethan Forme lives in a town where there basically is no life to create. This is where the symbolization from the graveyard comes in. The grave yard is there to illustrate the dead dreams of Ethan Forme. In a rural town like that there is no such thing as advancing and climbing the latter the way Ethan would like to. The town symbolizes a continues cycle of a life without future.