This story takes place in Starkfield, Massachusetts, in the seemingly unending winter. Starkfield is not a real town—it is a pure invention by author Edith Wharton. The fact that New England can get extremely cold in the winter plays a role in this story, as the ill-fated lovers, our protagonist Ethan and his wife's young cousin Mattie—attempt to end their lives by riding a sled into a tree at great speed.
Like most well-laid plans, however, things don't work out and both Ethan and Mattie survive the crash, albeit with horrific injuries. As luck would have it for all three parties, it is Zenobia, Ethan's wife, who is required to take care of her cheating husband and the woman that he truly loves in the aftermath of their accident.
Starkfield is depicted is being a place in which the time between one winter and the next is incredibly fleeting. It comes across as a depressing place and the presence of the word "stark" in its name implies that this is a severe and unforgiving place to call home. The cold weather and snow last for months on end, making sledding a natural pastime for those who live in the area. In fact, the standard way to get around town if you live in Starkfield is to take a horse-drawn sled.