The tale, as Edith Wharton herself referred to her work, is set in New England in the imaginary village of Starkfield, ca. 1911. Ethan Frome was also published in the year 1911. The introduction is narrated by a visitor, an outsider, and it serves as a frame for the story contained within namely the most relevant period in the life of farmer Ethan Frome, the main character. It is soon learnt that there is more to Ethan than meets the eye. He had longed for so much more for his life but the circumstances in had somewhat forced him to remain in the farm for the most of his life.
He is, in fact more than a “mere farmer”; as initially inferred from the various remarks and accounts given by either the narrator or the townspeople. Ethan Frome is now but the somber caricature of the man he used to be. His physical appearance reflects his very soul, that of a dead man. As Mrs. Hale herself puts it, toward the end of the story, Fromes lying underneath the graveyard at the ranch are probably as dead as the ones breathing and moving about above the ground.
The constant reference to the harsh, cold winter in Starkfield and the vehemence with which it preys on the inhabitants of the town represents the suffering and the struggle they must endure, hence the taciturnity, the reticence and inarticulateness that has shaped their personalities.
The amorous yearning Ethan develops for Mattie is a sort of escape and relief from the life he was trapped in and that he so despondently abhorred. In view of Mattie’s imminent parting and subsequent loss of Ethan’s only chance at happiness, he accepts Mattie’s bold suggestion of committing double suicide, as a means of idyllic escape and possible reunion after death, although the suicide attempt goes awry and results in them being physically impaired for life.