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...
(The entire section is 927 words.)