From the very first reference to Ethan Frome's damaged physique the narrator, and we as readers, are increasingly interested in the precise details of how Ethan Frome had his "smash up." Harmon tells the narrator that, even though the accident was very grave, the "Fromes are tough" and that "Ethan'll likely touch a hundred." Also, he tells our narrator that it is Ethan who actually cares for "the folks." Most of the "smart" inhabitants move away from Starkfield, however, Ethan has been unable to do move away because of the responsibilities he has towards the unspecified "folks" that he looks after. Even though the narrator assumes that since his accident others have had to care for him, Harmon replies by telling him that Frome has "always done the caring." Out of all the information that is told to the narrator, there is one phrase that strikes him as being of particular importance:
But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about which I grouped my subsequent inferences: "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters."
This is something that the narrator begins to understand as he lives through a winter there and experiences what the "negation" of life would have been like for Ethan.