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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The action of Ethan Frome unfolds in the wintertime in fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts, and the surrounding area--primarily on Ethan Frome's farm and the area near Starkfield's church. The action moves from the "present day" of the narrator to a time more than twenty years before (Chapters 1- 9), and back to the present day (Chapter 10, the Epilogue).
LIST OF CHARACTERS
Ethan is the protagonist of the story, and Edith Wharton's short novel is titled after this pathetic and tragic figure. At the beginning and end of the story, Ethan is a man in his fifties, disabled, silent, and a farmer outside of Starkfield. Physically he is quite noticeable, for he is tall, bent, and pained-looking. Chapters one through nine cover his earlier years, primarily a winter in his late twenties when he is a healthy young man; at that time he is depicted as a poor farmer, with an older wife and in love with a young cousin who has come to live at the farm. Ethan is shy, has had a little experience outside of Starkfield, and works very hard for a meager existence. He is portrayed as a victim of circumstance.
Mrs. Zenobia ("Zeena") Frome
Ethan's wife, who is also his distant cousin, is described as thin and hard. Before the action of the story begins, she has come to the farm to nurse Ethan's mother in her last days. Zeena ends up marrying Ethan and staying on the farm. She becomes sickly and is portrayed as unhappy, sharp, and looking constantly for "cures" to her vague ailments.
Mattie is the young cousin of Zeena who comes to live with Ethan and Zeena. She is described as short, dark, sweet, and lively; she also holds an affection for Ethan. Before the novel begins, she has been orphaned and left penniless. Since Zeena is sickly, she is supposed to be helping out at the farm, but since she has always lived in town, the farm work is not natural to her.
Ethan's story is told from the point of view of a narrator who is a wintertime visitor to Starkfield, staying at the widow Ruth Hale's. The narrator is nameless, presumably a man, who works as an engineer for a power company and is stranded in Starkfield during a strike at Corbury Junction. He sees Ethan, a bent and dogged older man who comes to the post office every day, and develops an interest in Ethan's history. The narrator travels daily to the Junction and has the opportunity to piece together Ethan's story from several different sources.
She is Ethan's mother, who grows very sick after the death of her husband. Ethan leaves college to care for her.
Mrs. Ned Hale (Ruth Varnum)
Mrs. Hale provides lodging for the narrator and tells a part of Ethan's story to him. A middle-aged woman at the start of the story, she lives with her mother. She is lawyer Varnum's daughter and after she is widowed continues to live in the Varnum "mansion" across from the church. During the earlier action, she is one of the young people of the village, who befriends Mattie and who becomes engaged to Ned Hale.
Harmon Gow provides the narrator with some early information on Ethan Frome. Harmon once drove the stagecoach from Bettsbridge to Starkfield and knew the stories of all the families on the line. He is not entirely forthcoming on details.
A rich Irish grocer, Denis provides the narrator with transportation until his horses fall sick. In the action of the story, as a younger man, he is a possible suitor to Mattie Silver.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Hale
They are the mother and father of Ned Hale. Andrew is a local builder who is in difficult financial shape. During the story, he becomes the father-in-law to Ruth and buys lumber from the young Ethan.
The hired man on Ethan's farm, Jotham takes orders, eats, and quietly (sometimes comically) submits to the directions of Zeena and Ethan.
Martha Pierce and Philura Maple
They are Zeena's aunts.