The mood of Ethan Frome can best be described as ominous and gloomy. At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that Ethan was injured in a “smash-up” more than twenty years earlier but fails to receive any other details. As a result, a sense of foreboding and frustration hangs over the rest of the narrative. The reader knows that Ethan’s story is fated to end in tragedy, but they aren’t certain when or how and can do nothing to prevent it.
The gloomy aspect of the novel’s mood mainly stems from its setting, which is consistently portrayed as bleak, harsh, and isolated. In order to construct this desolate atmosphere, Wharton frequently uses evocative visual imagery, as well as words and phrases with sinister connotations. One passage that encapsulates the novel’s dreary mood comes near the end of the Prologue, when the Narrator first catches a glimpse of the Frome farmhouse:
[W]e came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard lay a field or two, their boundaries lost under drifts; and above the fields, huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely New England farmhouses that make the landscape lonelier.
Wharton’s use of visual imagery and simile in this passage evokes loneliness and claustrophobia. The “starved” and “writhing” apple trees, as well as the slate outcroppings protruding from the snow “like animals pushing out their noses to breathe” allude to the barrenness of Ethan’s land and his struggle to escape his oppressive life in Starkfield. The image of the far-off farmhouse, which appears as just a tiny speck against a seemingly endless frozen landscape, illustrates his isolation.
The foreboding aspect of the novel’s mood becomes more present in the following passage, when the Narrator gets a closer look at the house:
“That’s my place,” said Frome, with a sideways jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.
In this passage, Wharton places great emphasis on the forces of snow and wind, further demonstrating the bleak and unforgiving nature of the New England landscape. The mention of Ethan’s injured arm, as well as “black wraith” above the door, which seems to be an omen of death and misfortune, foreshadows the tragedy will occur later in the novel. Overall, the "plaintive ugliness" of the house and the atmosphere that surrounds it is so distressing that the Narrator is literally rendered speechless.