Set around the late 1890s to early 1900s, Ethan Frome's fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts has been as good as forgotten by the spinning word of planes, trains, and automobiles. In fact, the extension of rail service to towns near Starkfield, but not to Starkfield, locks the town in a backward spiral towards deeper and deeper poverty. This has horrific effects on the Frome farm and sawmill, as well as on Ethan and his family. The sudden increase in isolation even drives his mother insane, which eventually leads to Ethan marrying for the wrong reasons. Expressing industrial anxieties of the age, the characters in this grim novella are injured by and isolated from progress. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie remain cruelly trapped just outside of history, unable to move forward.
Ethan Frome shows that while new technology and modernization allows some communities to move ahead, it forces other to move backwards.