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The prologue to the story of Ethan's tragedy explains the means by which it is told. Edith Wharton sets up a "frame," a beginning section (and later an ending section) which exists outside the tragedy, but which explains the means by which the narrator has pieced the details together. This is necessary, it is hinted, because these New Englanders are such private people. In the prologue, the author does not reveal all the details, for the story's plot has not fully emerged; but it is clearly foreshadowed that this will be a tale of sympathy and tragedy and that it will tell the story of Ethan Frome's unfortunate life.
In the prologue, much is revealed about Ethan. He is seen as an honest and reliable man. He comes to the post office every day to retrieve his newspaper and mail. He is on time each day to pick up and drive the narrator to the train. Even in a terrible snowstorm, Ethan is on time and insists on driving the Narrator the ten miles to Junction since the local trains are not running. Ethan is also portrayed as an intelligent man. He likes biochemistry and borrows a book on the subject from the Narrator. In the past, he has traveled to Florida, but for more than twenty years he has been tied to Starkfield because of his dying parents, his sickly wife, and his own smash-up. The fact that Ethan is portrayed as one of the "smart ones" that should have gotten away from the depressing town, makes it that much more tragic that he is stuck in his miserable and isolated rural life forever.
Although the narrator remains nameless in the Prologue, some information about him is given. He is a young professional, probably an engineer, who has come to the area of Starkfield for his job. He notices Ethan coming and going from the Post Office and is fascinated by the character. The curiosity the narrator shows is tempered by sympathy; he knows there must be world of human feeling behind the figure of the aged and tragic Ethan. He senses that the old man lives in a world of silence and isolation.
Because the narrator is versed in scientific investigation, it is implied that he can easily investigate Ethan's background and interpret it in a factual and scientific manner for the reader. It is also very clear that there is not much going on in the small town of Starkfield, aptly named. The investigation of Ethan, therefore, provides the young narrator with something to do. The narrator also serves as a reminder of what Ethan might have become if he had been able to escape from Starkfield.
It is important to note that Edith Wharton was not of the class of people like the inhabitants of Starkfield. She begins her story from the point of view of an educated and sophisticated traveler, with whom she can identify; through him she can more honestly claim some entrance to the piecing together of the story of a poor, reserved, and intensely private man. At the end of the prologue, Wharton leaves the first-person voice of the narrator and moves to the third-person, omniscient voice of a standard story-teller who follows Ethan through his tragedy. It is assumed that this is the "story-telling voice" of the narrator who dips into the past.
It is also important to note how Edith Wharton builds suspense in the Prologue. Even though the narrator questions Mrs. Hale and Harmon Gow about Ethan Frome, not very much information is given, just enough to whet the curiosity of the narrator and the reader. It is revealed that the tragic figure has been disfigured by a smash-up and that he has a sickly wife. It is intentional that no mention is made of Mattie at this point in the book; as a result, Edith Wharton almost makes the reader believe that Ethan's wife Zeena has been involved in the smash-up and that she is the complaining voice heard on the farm when the narrator arrives.
Finally, it is important to notice the setting of the story. It is rural New England, where people by nature tend to be quiet and reserved. It is also the depth of winter, an appropriate time for a tale of tragedy. In New England, winter means snow, ice, and isolation; it deprives people of communication and saps their spirits. It depletes the landscape, as evidenced in the starved apple orchard and the dead vine at the front of Ethan's house. The winter is also brutal on the buildings in the area. Ethan's farmhouse seems to "shiver" in the cold; his sawmill has been ruined by too much snow and ice, and appears "cut off" and despairing, a perfect reflection of Ethan himself. The narrator speculates that Ethan has endured too many cold New England winters.