If you dig deep enough and you will find a story. And this search for a story will reveal a moment that is life altering. It is a moment where the the heavens above tilt one way or the other, and the course of the stars change for good or bad, and one's life is moved from happiness to desperation and misery, or, the other way around. A good storyteller who properly tells the story, will reveal that there exist other moments, other events, and other decisions that play a part in that final moment.
Edith Wharton, through the literary device of the flashback, uses an unnamed narrator to tell the story of Ethan Frome, a strikingly tall man with a powerful look despite his lameness, a man who now looks as if he was "dead and in hell." In what happened twenty-four years before, lies the story - a young man whose dreams were dashed by the decisions of those around him, and, ultimately, by his own choice.
Laid up in the small New England town of Starkfield for the winter, the narrator sets out to learn the mysterious story. When a violent snowstorm forces the narrator into an overnight stay at the Frome household, the narrator is told the story by Ethan himself.
Flashback - Ethan is walking through snowy Starkfield at midnight. In the basement lights of a village church, Ethan catches sight of a young girl in a cherry-colored scarf. She is his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has been living with the Fromes for over a year, helping to take care of the house and Ethan's sickly and bitter wife Zeena.
When the dance lets out, Ethan catches up with Mattie to walk her home. A sense of thrill is apparent between Ethan and Mattie, which, when the two arrive home, is also apparent to the sickly Zeena. Without a word to Zeena and with thoughts only of Mattie, Ethan goes to bed.
Ethan 's opportunity to be alone with Mattie comes the next day when his wife announces that she has decided to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, and will spend the night there with relatives. Ethan is excited and goes into town to make a lumber sale, but hurries home to Mattie in time for supper.
The evening meal between the two is a scene of non-verbalized thoughts; as well as, the unspoken presence of Zeena, symbolized by a favorite pickle dish which falls to the floor and shatters. Ethan fails in his courage to express his inner thoughts and the two separately go to bed. The next day Zeena returns and informs Ethan that her health is failing quickly and that she plans to hire someone to replace Mattie.
Spurred on by Zeena's resolve to remove Mattie from the house, Ethan goes to the kitchen and kisses Mattie passionately. He tells Mattie of Zeena’s plans, but the moment is interrupted by Zeena herself. That evening, Ethan contemplates his choices. Unable to prevent Mattie's dismissal, Ethan contemplates eloping with Mattie, and even begins to draft a letter of farewell to Zeena. But considering his financial situation, Ethan realizes that his dream is unreal.
At breakfast the next day, Zeena announces plans for Mattie’s departure and the arrival of the new hired girl. Later, Ethan steals into town with a plan to collect an advance on a recently delivered lumber load, and thereby pay for his and Mattie's escape. But, on the way, Ethan encounters a neighbor's wife who praises him for his patience in caring for the ailing Zeena. Her words touch his conscience and he returns to the farm..
Against Zeena’s wishes, Ethan decides to drive Mattie to the railroad station himself. Ethan takes a roundabout route and ends up stopping at the top of the village hill. There they agree to fulfill a sledding adventure they once proposed but had never undertaken. After the first run prompts Mattie suggests a second, but with a different purpose. Together, they will run the sled into the elm tree at the foot of the hill, and end their last moments together. Ethan rejects her idea initially, but is won over. Together, they lock themselves in a final embrace headed down the hill toward the big elm. After the collision, Ethan languidly reached out to touch Mattie's hair and feel her face. In the darkness that enveloped them, he saw her weakly open her eyes and say his name.
Twenty years forward and the narrator enters the Frome's kitchen where two frail and aging women bicker. The drone of their querulous chatter stops as the narrator enters; Frome, glancing about at the poor condition of the room, apologizes for the cold. Then, he introduces the narrator to the two women - the first a tall bony figure, with pale opaque eyes revealing nothing and reflecting nothing, as his wife, "Mis' Frome", and to the second seated, paralyzed woman in the chair by the fire, with eyes that had a dark-witch like stare, as —"Miss Mattie Silver".
Edith Wharton likely based her story of Ethan Frome on an incident that she had heard about early in her life. In 1904 a sledding accident involving four girls and one boy occurred on Courthouse Hill in Lennox, Massachusettes. One of the girls was killed when the sled struck a lamppost.
Wharton heard about the story from another of the girls who became her friend later in life. As tragic events go, it was the death of the girl that was long remembered. It remained for Edith Wharton to give the event a story that would live on. And while the story of Ethan Frome is fictitious, the characters and events are real enough that they resonate with readers even today.