by Edith Wharton
Where It All Goes Down
Starkfield, Massachusetts, late 1800s to early 1900s
Ethan Frome is set in the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The story spans about 25 years, probably beginning in the late 1890s or early 1900s. Historically, this time period is marked as one of great change with innovations in communication, manufacturing, and travel technologies. The many advancements spin American society into a period of progress and modernization.
Yet, opportunities for women remain limited, and education is hard to come by, especially for those who are poor. For those like the characters in Ethan Frome, technology and modernization are passing by, but not necessarily having an impact on daily life. This is the broad backdrop of the novella.
But, the bulk of the story's action (Chapters 1-9) happens over just four days in February. These four days are the culmination of a year of attraction between Ethan and Mattie, and also of a terrible tragedy.
It's also important that the novella is set in the winter. In fact, the narrator believes that older Ethan's character was formed as much by his apparent tragedy as by the particularly rough winters in Starkfield, as we see in these lines:
I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters. (Prologue.29)
Winter is also blamed for Ethan's decision to marry Zeena, who had been nursing his mother before she passed away:
After the funeral, when he saw [Zeena] preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter...(4.6)
This brings us to an important detail. February. The narrator learns from Harmon Gow in the Prologue that "the smash-up" happened "twenty-four years ago come next February" (Prologue.3). What's just around the corner from February? Spring. This is all part of the dark irony and deep tragedy of the story. Spring and summer in Starkfield are only dimly remembered, never seen lived or experienced. It's as if by the time the characters have recovered from one winter, another is already on their heels.
So what exactly is this place Starkfield? In the "Author's Note to Ethan Frome" Edith Wharton says that one of the reason she wrote the novella was because she didn't think other fiction writers had properly captured the New England landscape. She wanted to show the "harsh and beautiful" land as she saw it, in all its beauty and all its danger.
But, while Starkfield is modeled on a fairly specific place (New England), we can also think of it as any place that a person gets stuck in, any place where it seems impossible to stay, and impossible to leave. This can be a geographical location, a state of mind, a building or a city, or tiny kitchen on a broken down farm.
When we notice that there is also a "Springfield" in the story, we realize that Starkfield (stark meaning, hard, bare, difficult) really is supposed to be the place of eternal hardship. Springfield is the place Zeena goes to visit doctors and get medicine. This is perhaps to emphasize that Starkfield has the absolute worst kind of winters you can imagine. This also emphasizes that spring (and health) is always a false promise for the characters.
For more on the setting of Ethan Frome, check out our discussion of "The Church Basement and the Frome Home" and "The Farm, the Sawmill, and the Railroad" under "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."