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Free Study Guide-Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton-Free Book Summary Notes
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The story begins in the first person, "I had the story, bit by bit, from various people. . . ." The "prologue" (it is neither Chapter One, nor Forward, nor Introduction) introduces Ethan Frome in the eyes of the nameless narrator, who watches Ethan come and go from the Starkfield Post Office. Ethan is a striking figure, a "ruin of a man," not only tall but having a "careless powerful look." He is lame, stiffened, grizzled, and is unapproachable.

The narrator gets his first details on Ethan's life from Harmon Gow, who had driven the stagecoach before trains were introduced to the area. Gow refers to Ethan's "smash-up," twenty four years before. The narrator supposes that Ethan's physical state--his disfigured right side, the red gash on his forehead, his labored walk--is the result of the "smash-up." Ethan, however, still makes his way to the Post Office every day at noon to get his newspaper and often some packages of patent medicines bearing his wife's name. Ethan rarely takes notice of anyone, and people mostly leave him alone.

As the narrator and Harmon Gow watch Ethan Frome drive away, Gow notes that the Fromes are tough stock and that Ethan might live to one hundred. The narrator exclaims that Ethan looks to be in hell already. Gow adds that most of the "smart ones" get away from Starkfield, but Ethan had stayed to take care of his parents and then his wife. He adds that even now, after the smash-up, Ethan does a good bit of the caretaking. Gow says no more, though the narrator senses that there must be more to the story. The narrator particularly remembers Gow's statement, "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters."

The narrator describes his own experience of Starkfield in winter and how much more dull life must have been twenty years ago when travel was more difficult and recreation for the young people was harder to come by. The narrator has been stuck in Starkfield all winter; he was sent by his employers on a job related to the power company and then delayed in his work by a strike. At first unhappy with the "hypnotizing" routine, he then sees some beauty in the snowy landscape, but is puzzled to notice that the inhabitants seem only to slow their usually sluggish pace further in winter. After months of storms and wind and cold, however, he understands Harmon Gow's sinister phrase, "the smart ones get away."

The narrator has been staying with Mrs. Ned (Ruth) Hale, a middle-aged widow, and her mother, the widow Mrs. Varnum, in the old-fashioned Varnum mansion across from the Congregational church. They are not wealthy, but dignified; and, though not "superior," Mrs. Hale's education and refinement allow her to see her neighbors at a certain distance. The narrator hopes to get more details of Ethan's life from her, for Mrs. Hale usually talks freely of her neighbors; when asked about Ethan Frome, however, her manner changes, and she merely says, "it was awful. . . ." The narrator asks Harmon Gow about Mrs. Hale's reaction, and he says she is simply "nervous." The real truth is that Mrs. Hale was the first one to see the accident scene.

The narrator notes that all the inhabitants of Starkfield have "troubles;" but everyone concedes that Ethan has had the most. Since Ethan's face shows that his troubles are obviously not just physical or financial, the narrator senses there is more to the story and is eager to know the answers. He gathers more information when he actually meets Ethan. The narrator needs a ride to the junction when his usual team of hired horses, belonging to Denis Eady, falls sick. Harmon Gow suggests that Ethan may be glad to provide the service, for he is always in need of money. Apparently Ethan's father had suffered a head injury and had given away the family's money before he died; then Ethan's mother fell ill and lingered for years. Since his mother's death, Ethan has nursed his sick wife. No wonder it is said that "Ethan's had his plate full up. . .ever since the first helping."

As suspected, Ethan is eager to earn the extra money by driving the narrator. He is there to pick up his client the next morning; every morning, thereafter, Ethan takes the narrator to the train, and in the afternoon he picks him up from the train. Ethan is very reliable, and his old bay horse is slow, but steady. In addition to watching the melancholy landscape, the narrator tries to strike up a conversation with Ethan; if he responds, the driver always talks briefly and in monosyllables. The narrator senses that Ethan's loneliness is not just a result of personal plight, but all the hard New England winters he has endured.

The narrator finds out from Ethan that he has been to Florida, and that he is interested in biochemistry. He lends him a biochemistry book, which Ethan is reticent to borrow. The narrator hopes that this incident will elicit some further discussion and throw some light onto Ethan's psyche, but Ethan never refers to the biochemistry book again. Ethan's steady reserve remains intact.

After a week of riding back and forth with Ethan, the narrator wakes one morning to a terrible snowstorm. He has an important meeting at the Flats that afternoon and decides to make the trip if Ethan shows up to drive him. As expected, the conscientious Ethan arrives right on time. The storm is so bad that Ethan determines to drive the narrator all the way to the Junction, ten miles away, for the local trains are blocked. The narrator is amazed at Ethan's thoughtfulness and grateful for his help.

Ethan turns the sled towards the schoolhouse and then travels the country road that leads by his own farm. The sheds sag under the weight of snow; the old apple trees look half-starved; and the farmhouse is huddled, lonesome, and ugly. Ethan jerks his lame elbow towards the scene and says, "That's my place," yet does not even turn his head. Ethan says he has taken down the back part of the house, and the narrator notes how stunted the house looks. The house is no longer connected to the outbuildings and reminds the narrator of the stunted unconnectedness of Ethan.

Ethan tells the narrator that the road by his place used to be a main road, but when the railroad came through, the traffic shifted. His mother used to enjoy watching the busy road, and Ethan thinks that when people stopped driving by, his mother couldn't understand what had happened and the loss contributed to her demise. The snowstorm picks up, throwing a white veil over Ethan's farm and even over Ethan. The two drive on to the Junction in silence.

After finishing his business in the afternoon, the narrator and Ethan head back in better weather; but the storm picks up again and travel becomes difficult. When the darkness of night arrives, it is hard for Ethan and his horse to stay on the road homeward. Since the animal is exhausted, the narrator walks alongside for a mile or two to give the horse some relief. When they arrive at Ethan's gate, he offers the narrator lodging for the night so they do not have to travel further into town. Without answering, the narrator turns in at the gate and follows Ethan into the barn to put up the horse and sleigh. The narrator then follows Ethan to the small patch of light, which indicates the house, and they enter by a small, unlit passage, through which the narrator can hear the tones of a woman's querulous voice. Ethan stamps the snow from his boots and opens the door; as he invites the narrator in, the voice inside stops. That night, the narrator begins to put Ethan's story together.

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