The Narrator's "vision" of Ethan Frome's story , told in the third person, begins. It is winter in Starkfield. Young Ethan Frome walks through the deep snow to the church where a dance is being held. As he walks, Ethan is reminded of a physics course he took four or five years earlier at a technological college in Worcester, before his father's accidental death forced him to drop out of school and return to Starkfield to take over the Frome farm.
Ethan's educational ambitions were thwarted by events outside of his control—a horse kick to his father's head—and by his own sense of duty to return and take over the farm.
Hiding outside the church, Ethan peeps through a window and sees Mattie Silver, his wife's younger cousin, dancing with Denis Eady, the son of Michael Eady, a wealthy shopkeeper. Mattie, wearing a cherry-colored scarf called a "fascinator," appears happy and exhilarated. Ethan is dismayed that Mattie doesn't see what an arrogant, offensive fellow Denis is. Since Ethan is only happy when he is with Mattie, he's confused by Mattie's high spirits, and worries that she may be in love with Denis.
Ethan standing out in the snow while the dance goes on inside shows his isolation from society. Ethan's jealousy of Denis Eady's wealth shows his sense of inferiority as well as his tendency to blame external forces, like his poverty, for his situation in life.The red scarf sets Mattie apart from the crowd, and is the first of several images that associate her with warmth and light.
Mattie lives with the Fromes because her own parents lost their money and died a year earlier. She now helps Ethan's sickly wife Zeena with household chores in exchange for room and board. To make the transition from city life easier, Zeena has encouraged Mattie to attend social events in Starkfield occasionally. Ethan enjoys walking Mattie the two miles back to the farm after these events. Ethan and Mattie share a love of nature, and during the walk he likes to point out the constellations to her and impress her with his knowledge.
19th-century America offered few employment opportunities for uneducated single women. As an orphan with no inheritance, Mattie is dependent on her relatives for support. Ethan is attracted to Mattie partly because she listens respectfully to what he tells her and admires his learning. Unlike Zeena, who questions his authority, Mattie makes Ethan feel masterful.
Recently, however, Zeena pointed out to Ethan how inefficiently Mattie does the housework. Ethan tried to cover up for Mattie by secretly helping her with the chores. Zeena noticed his efforts, however, and suggested that they look for a new hired girl, adding that Mattie will soon be leaving them when she marries Denis Eady. Although Mattie has given no indication that she is interested in Denis, the sight of them dancing together arouses Ethan's fears, as he realizes that he can no longer live without her.
Zeena has the exclusive right to Ethan's love and loyalty. To protect her marriage and ensure her security, Zeena reminds Ethan that it is in Mattie's best interest to marry a promising young bachelor like Denis Eady. Despite his love and concern for Mattie, Ethan cannot bear to lose her to a younger and more successful rival.