Ethan Frome opens with an Introductory Note, which, like the rest of the story, is put into the mouth of an anonymous narrator. The narrator is distinct from the author herself, being an engineer, apparently male, who is sent by his employer to the isolated village of Starkfield, Massachusetts to do a job. There, he comes across Ethan Frome and becomes intrigued by his story, which he investigates and relates.
The narrator describes how he saw Ethan for the first time. Ethan was in the daily habit of driving his buggy from his farm to the post office in Starkfield, in order to pick up his post. At the post office, Ethan usually buys a copy of the local newspaper and sometimes picks up medicine for his wife, Zenobia, or Zeena for short.
The narrator is struck by how old Ethan looks at only fifty-two. Though an impressive figure, he is but a lame and disfigured "ruin of a man." Starkfield resident Harmon Gow tells the narrator that Ethan has been that way since a "smash-up" twenty-four years ago. Gow remarks that Ethan has been in Starkfield too many winters, adding that the smart people leave. Ethan could not leave because he had had to look after a succession of invalids: first his father, then his mother, and now his wife. Then he had had the "smash-up," and was forced to stay. But Harmon Gow believes that despite Ethan's disabilities, it is he who does the caring in his household.
A carpenters' strike delays the narrator in Starkfield for most of the winter, a season that renders the place particularly isolated and grim. He wonders what prevented Ethan from getting away.
The narrator is staying with Mrs Hale, a middle-aged widow of a refinement and education that sets her apart from the rest of the Starkfield community. She is reticent on the subject of Ethan, apparently due to her distress at his tragic story. Gow tells the narrator that Mrs Hale, then Ruth Varnum, was the first to see Ethan and his companion after their "smash-up." Around that time, Ruth had become engaged to Ned Hale.
After the narrator arrives in Starkfield, the horses in the local livery stable, owned by Denis Eady, fall sick. The narrator must look elsewhere for his daily transport to Corbury Flats, where he is to catch the train to the junction on which he is to carry out his engineering work. Gow suggests that Ethan could drive the narrator over instead - he would be glad of the money. Gow says that Ethan's sawmill and farm do not bring enough income to support the household in the winter. When Ethan was able to work hard, he eked out a living, but his finances were drained through having to look after three invalids: first his father, then his mother, and now Zeena. Ethan has had nothing but "sickness and trouble."
For the next week, Ethan drives the narrator to work. During their journeys, he mostly keeps silent and only answers the narrator's questions in monosyllables. The impasse is momentarily broken when the narrator accidentally leaves a science book in Ethan's buggy. When Ethan returns it to the narrator, he remarks, in a resentful tone, that it contained things he knows nothing about.
The narrator loans him the book, hoping that this will kick-start some communication between them, but Ethan withdraws into himself and does not mention the book again.
A week later, heavy snow falls and the railroad becomes blocked. Ethan offers to drive the narrator the full ten miles in his buggy to the junction where he works. On their first trip, they pass Ethan's dilapidated farm and sawmill. Ethan explains that before the railroad was upgraded, there was considerable traffic through Starkfield, but now the place is "side-tracked." He ascribes his mother's decline to the decline of the locality.
With difficulty, they find their way back to Starkfield in a snowstorm. Ethan invites the narrator to stay at his house for the night, rather than struggling on to his lodgings. As they enter the house, the narrator hears "a woman's voice droning querulously." He comments that it was this night that he found the clue to Ethan Frome and began to put together his story.
Wharton's use of a narrator with an identity separate from her own as author is significant for several reasons. First, the narrator is an engineer and probably male (though gender is not specified), giving him a freedom to travel and socialize that was not enjoyed by women at the time. Second, the narrator arrives in Starkfield as a stranger, knowing nothing about the inhabitants. He sees Ethan at the end of his 'story', his ruined appearance suggestive of some tragic events that neither the narrator nor we have any idea about. Both our, and the narrator's curiosity is piqued and not immediately satisfied, leading to a state of suspense. The suspense is intensified by the reserved and unsophisticated nature of the Starkfield inhabitants; it is difficult to get any information out of them and what information is supplied is inadequate. Mrs Ned Hale does not wish to speak of Ethan's story because it upsets her; Harmon Gow is more forthcoming but only knows a few facts, lacking the psychological insights that would round out the story.
The narrator in many novels is omniscient from the start and knows everything; the narrator in this novel begins by knowing nothing. We join him on his journey of discovery as he questions various people in the village about Ethan's story and finally finds out from Ethan himself. The information, when it comes, does not flow freely but drips out slowly and reluctantly, reinforcing the atmosphere of stifled repression, frozenness and denial of life already created by the descriptions of the Starkfield landscape.
Starkfield is portrayed in images of snow, ice, cold, isolation, and death. The location is in itself an important theme and is an outward expression of the despair and hopelessness that blights the lives of Ethan and his neighbors: ". when winter shut down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there - or rather its negation - must have been in Ethan Frome's young manhood."
The very name 'Starkfield' has connotations of bleakness. There is a sense in which the characters' fates are shaped by the geography and climate of the place; it is as if the landscape enters the individual consciousness. This is made clear in Ethan's remembrance of the Florida winter: "I was down there once, and for a good while afterward I could call up the sight of it in winter. But now it's all snowed under." He could be referring to the landscape or his memories; the two seem interchangeable, but either way, the image is one of life frozen, buried and ultimately extinguished. There is a sense too of opportunities lost forever, and this is reinforced by his remarks about the science book. The subject "used to" interest him but that it contains things he knows nothing about, implying that the world has moved on while he has been left behind. The fact that the upgrade of the railroad has resulted in Starkfield's being "side-tracked", with very little passing traffic, is another sign that life and opportunities have passed by Ethan and the community. Ethan draws a parallel between his mother's decline and the decline of the locality.
Wharton contrasts the vitality of the climate, with its blue skies and white snow, with "the deadness of the community". The atmosphere seems to retard even more "the sluggish pulse of Starkfield."
The state of Ethan's farm and sawmill reflects his fortunes. The shed roof sags under the weight of snow; the paint is worn; and the sawmill wheel sits idle. The "black wraith" of a creeper hangs by the door, reminiscent of the black streamers that people used to hang by the door as a sign of mourning. "Wraith" also means "ghost," adding to the theme of death. Most significantly, the "L" part of the house that normally forms the "center, the actual hearth-stone" of a New England farm, and which protects the family from the elements on their way from the house to the cow-barn, has been demolished. The narrator sees the loss of this building as symbolic of the diminishment of Ethan himself.