Ethan Frome is the story of a man who, following the death of his father, gives up his education and other opportunities to return to the family farm in Starkfield, Massachusetts to support his ailing mother. When his mother dies, Ethan, overcome by loneliness, impulsively marries Zeena Pierce, an older cousin who helped nurse his dying mother. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena becomes ill and Ethan must again assume the role of caregiver and give up his dreams of moving to a large town and becoming an engineer. Ethan’s outlook changes, however, when Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to live with them as Zeena’s aid. She shares Ethan’s sense of wonder and sensitivity to the appeal of natural beauty, Mattie is everything that Zeena is not. She restores Ethan’s ability to imagine happiness and, before long, a mutual but unexpressed passion develops.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is sent to Starkfield on business. He first meets Ethan in the town’s post office and, finding the fifty-two-year-old “ruin of a man” the “most striking figure in Starkfield,” becomes fascinated by his life story. He learns from a local resident that Ethan has looked this way ever since his “smash-up” twenty-four years ago. Bit by bit, the narrator hears fragments of Ethan’s story and constructs a narrative based on the paradoxical accounts of his life. His task is facilitated when, one stormy winter night, he is given a rare invitation to spend the night at Frome’s farm. It is there, after hearing a woman’s voice drone querulously as he approached the house, that the narrator claims to have found the “clue to Ethan Frome.” The chapters that follow constitute the narrator’s “vision” of the story.
This “vision” goes back twenty-four years to the days leading up to Ethan’s smash-up and begins on the night of a church dance. Ethan, arrived to accompany Mattie back to the farm, waits outside while the musicians play a final tune. As they are walking home Mattie mentions that, earlier in the evening, some of her friends had gone coasting down the hill behind the church. Ethan asks if she too would like to go coasting and proposes that they go tomorrow if there is a moon. Their path leads them by the Frome gravestones, a place that, in the past, has made Ethan feel as though his restlessness and desire to get away were being mocked. But, on this night, he is filled with a “sense of continuance and stability” and finds pleasure in the thought that Mattie will one day be lying there beside him.
When they arrive home, Ethan discovers that the kitchen door is locked. He and Mattie are trying to account for this unprecedented occurrence when Zeena suddenly opens the door and says: “I just felt so mean I couldn’t sleep.” Although Zeena has never shown any signs of jealousy, there have, of late, been disquieting “signs of her disfavour.” As a result, this incident, combined with complaints about Mattie’s inefficiency as a housekeeper and suggestions that a hired girl may become necessary, instill in Ethan a “vague dread.” This dread is relieved, however, when Zeena announces the next morning that she is going to stay with her Aunt to see a new doctor. The news convinces Ethan that the previous night’s explanation was merely a sign that Zeena is absorbed in her own health and that his “vague apprehensions” of troubles with his wife are unfounded.
To mark their first-ever evening alone together, Mattie prepares a special dinner and wears a ribbon in her hair as a “tribute to the unusual.” Although the mood of the evening is threatened when Zeena’s beloved pickle dish-a never-used wedding gift-is accidentally broken, the cozy after-dinner scene by the stove produces in Ethan the “illusion of long-established intimacy.” Without knowing what he is doing, Ethan stoops and kisses the end of the “stuff [Mattie is] hemming.” In response, Mattie gets up, puts away her work and retires to her room.
When Zeena returns the next day, she informs Ethan that she is a great deal sicker than he thinks and that she has hired a girl to take care of her. Ethan objects on financial grounds but Zeena, explaining that they will no longer need to worry about Mattie’s board, effectively tells him that her cousin will be leaving tomorrow. A few moments later, Ethan is alone with Mattie in the kitchen. Sensing that something is wrong, Mattie melts against him in terror and asks him what it is. Instead of answering, Ethan kisses her and cries out: “You can’t go, Matt! I’ll never let you!” It is on this night that Zeena discovers the broken pieces of her pickle dish and accuses Mattie of taking from her the thing she cared for most of all.
That night, alone in his private study, Ethan recalls the case of a man who escaped from a similar life of misery by going West with the girl he loved. Believing for a moment that he and Mattie could do the same, he begins to write a letter to Zeena. However, economic realities thwart his plans and oblige him to concede that he is a “prisoner for life.” Rebellious passions resurface the following morning, but again his plan is aborted when he realizes he would have to deceive someone.
When the time of Mattie’s departure finally arrives, Ethan delays their separation by bringing her to Shadow Pond, the location of a church picnic they attended together. They reminisce about the event and Ethan imagines that he is “free man, wooing the girl he meant to marry.” He begins to tell Mattie that he would do anything, would even go away with her if he could, when Mattie pulls out the letter he had started to write the night before and forgot to destroy. She reveals that she too has dreamed of going away with him but Ethan still feels unable to prevent their separation.
As they approach the church, they are reminded that they were to have gone sledding the night before. Ethan finds a sled and, finally, the two get to enjoy their long-awaited coast. On their way back up the hill, Mattie flings her arms around Ethan’s neck and kisses him. Then, in despair over their lack of options, she leads Ethan back to the sled and instructs him to steer them directly into the big elm at the bottom of the hill so they will “never have to leave each other any more.” Tragically, Mattie’s plan proves imperfect: while it does prevent the lovers’ separation, both Ethan and Mattie survive the crash and are left lying in the snow, crippled and in pain.
The novel ends with the resumption of the narrator’s account of his overnight stay at Frome’s farm. As he enters the kitchen, the “querulous drone” stops and he is unable to determine which of the two old women before him had been the speaker. One of the women gets up to prepare Ethan’s meal while the other, whose hair is just as gray and whose face just as bloodless and shriveled as her companion’s, remains seated and limp by the stove. Ethan introduces the first woman as his wife, and the other as Miss Mattie Silver. Upon hearing their voices, the narrator concludes that it was Mattie’s voice he heard as he approached the house. He learns the next day that Zeena has been caring for Mattie and Ethan ever since the accident twenty-four years ago.