Near the end of the novel’s Prologue, the Narrator of Ethan Frome catches his first glimpse of the Frome farmhouse. The sight distresses and unsettles him, and the eerie atmosphere of the scene is amplified by the fact that the house appears to take on human characteristics:
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 personifies the Frome farmhouse through metaphor, likening it to a human shivering in the winter cold. This comparison implies that the house’s walls do a rather poor job of keeping out the snow and wind—if the house itself is shivering, then the people residing within it must also be at the mercy of the elements.
The Narrator goes on to describe the house as “forlorn and stunted,” a description that imbues it with a sense of human sorrow. The house looks so forlorn and does such a bad job of keeping out the cold because it is missing its “L”—a structure that would ordinarily connect the main house to the wood-shed and the barn. As the Narrator explains, this structure is the “hearth-stone of the New England farm,” and its absence prompts the Narrator to draw a connection between the house and the man who owns it:
Perhaps this connection of ideas, which often occurred to me in my rambles about Starkfield, caused me to hear a wistful note in Frome’s words, and to see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body.
Just as the physical form of the farmhouse has become diminished by the removal of the “L,” Ethan’s body has become malformed and weak as a result of his accident. This connection further personifies the house and suggests that Ethan has also lost his “hearth-stone,” that is, his heart or his source of hope and happiness.