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Synopsis

Ethan Frome is set in a fictional New England town named Starkfield, where an unnamed narrator tells the story of his encounter with Ethan Frome, a man with dreams and desires that end in an ironic turn of events. The narrator tells the story based on an account from observations at Frome's house when he had to stay there during a winter storm.

The novel is framed with the literary concept of an extended flashback. The first chapter opens with an unnamed narrator who, while spending a winter in Starkfield, sets out to learn about the life of a mysterious local figure named Ethan Frome, a man who had been injured in a horrific "smash-up" some two decades before. Frome is described as "the most striking figure in Starkfield", "the ruin of a man" with a "careless powerful look...in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain".

The narrator fails to get many details from the townspeople. However, the narrator hires him as his driver for a week. A severe snowstorm forces Frome to take the narrator to his home one night for shelter. Just as the two are entering Frome's house, the first chapter ends. The second chapter flashes back twenty years; the narration switches from the first-person narrator of the first chapter to an omniscient third-person narrator. Ethan is waiting outside a church dance for Mattie, his wife's cousin, who lives with Ethan and his wife Zeena (Zenobia) to help around the house since Zeena is sickly. Mattie is given the occasional night off to entertain herself in town as partial recompense for taking care of the Frome family without pay, and Ethan has fallen into the habit of walking her home. It is made clear that Ethan has deep feelings for Mattie, and it is equally clear that Zeena suspects these feelings and does not approve.

When Zeena leaves for a two-day visit to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, Ethan is excited to have an evening alone with Mattie. However, the two never verbalize or show their passion for each other throughout their evening together. The Fromes' cat breaks Zeena's favorite pickle dish which Mattie had set on the table. Ethan sets the dish's pieces neatly in the cupboard with plans to fix it soon. He represses the impulse to demonstrate his passion and affection for Mattie.

In the morning, Ethan's plans to reveal his love for Mattie are foiled by the presence of his hired man; he runs into town to pick up some glue for the broken pickle dish, and upon his return finds that Zeena has returned. Zeena informs him that she plans to send Mattie away and hire a more efficient girl to replace her, as her health is failing even more rapidly. Ethan's passions are inflamed by the thought of losing Mattie, and he kisses her passionately when he finds her in the kitchen after Zeena's pronouncement. He tells her of Zeena's plans to dismiss her, but their moment is interrupted by Zeena herself. Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish and is angered, furthering her determination to get rid of Mattie.

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