Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927
Everyone in Starkfield, Massachusetts, knows Ethan Frome and his tragic story—everyone but the narrator, who has arrived to work on an engineering project in nearby Corbury Junction. He gleans what he can in bits and pieces from the people in town with whom he comes in contact.
When he sees Ethan for the first time, he is stunned at this “ruin of a man.” Ethan is taller than most people in town, and he has a “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain.” He has the look of someone who has lived a lot but would rather not have done so; though he is only fifty-two, Ethan seems much older since the “smash-up” twenty-four years ago. The narrator sees Ethan come to the post office every day to pick up his mail, though he rarely receives anything more than the local newspaper. Occasionally he carelessly pockets an envelope with the name Mrs. Zeena (or Zenobia) Frome from a patent medicine company. Although people say hello to Ethan, few engage him in conversation. When Harmon Gow tells the narrator that the Fromes are a sturdy bunch and he will probably live to be a hundred, the narrator exclaims, “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” Harmon explains that Ethan was an only child growing up in this bleak, New England town from which “most of the smart ones get away.”
The narrator has his lodgings in the mansion home Mrs. Ned Hale (Ruth) shares with her mother. Ruth gossips and expresses her views regarding almost everything, but she will not gossip about Ethan Frome. When the engineer asks Harmon Gow about Mrs. Hale’s reluctance to speak of Ethan, he is told that Ruth was the first one to see them and probably cannot bear to speak of it. His landlady’s reticence to speak coupled with his personal contact with Ethan make the narrator eager to understand this man’s life.
Dennis Eady arranges for the engineer’s ride to the train station at Corbury Flats. A local epidemic hits the town and spreads to the stables. For several days, the narrator has no way to get to the train depot; Eady suggests that Ethan may be interested in a little extra money and would probably drive him to the station. When the newcomer is surprised at the suggestion, Eady explains that the Frome farm and mill was never a prosperous operation, but Ethan’s parents made matters worse toward the end of their lives. Ethan’s father got kicked in the head and “gave away money like Bible texts” in his final days. Then his mother turned “queer” and needed help for the rest of her lingering life. Zeena came to help. For more than twenty years, the farm has done little more than allow Ethan to eke out a meager existence.
The next morning, Ethan and his sad-looking horse come to pick up the engineer. He delivers the narrator faithfully to and from the train depot for the next week. Each journey is only three miles, but the trip takes almost an hour each way. Ethan is taciturn but not unfriendly; he is simply living in a “depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access.” Several times, though, the narrator gets a glimpse of something more. Once the narrator mentions going to Florida for an engineering job, and Ethan remarks that he has been there. He says that for a time he could remember what it was like but “now it’s all snowed under.” Another time the engineer inadvertently leaves a science book in the sleigh; when he arrives back in Starkfield, Ethan is holding the book. On their drive home, Ethan shows some wistfulness regarding the material he has read in the book, so the narrator offers to let him keep it for a bit. Though he hesitates, Ethan keeps the book; nothing more is ever spoken about it.
One day there is a heavy snowfall, and the engineer is not sure if he will be able to make his usual journey. However, Ethan arrives on time, so they leave. Ethan takes them on an unusual route and, when asked, explains that the train is stuck and they are traveling the ten miles straight to the Junction. It will be a slow journey, but the horse will make it and the engineer is thankful he will be able to meet his obligation. Ethan points out his home as they drive by, a sad-looking farmhouse without the traditional L that marks the hearth of most New England houses. Ethan comments that this used to be a well-traveled path; when his mother was bedridden, she enjoyed seeing all the travelers as they passed. Ethan believes she lost her will to live once the train came in and the road became rather deserted.
They make it to their destination, and the engineer finishes his duties quickly so they can head back to Starkfield. Travel is difficult and they have trouble even finding the road. After much struggling, Ethan recognizes his gate and pulls in, tacitly inviting the young engineer to stay at his home for the night. They flounder through the snow by the light of Ethan’s lantern until they reach the door. Behind it, the narrator hears “a woman’s voice droning querulously.” After stomping the snow from his boots, Ethan opens the door and the droning grows still. This is the night when the narrator creates the following vision of Ethan Frome’s story.
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