Ethan Frome is set in the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, with the majority of the narrative taking place sometime during the late 1800s.
Although the plot and setting of Ethan Frome are both fictional, the novel draws inspiration from real-life events and locations. The novel’s climax, for example, was inspired by a fatal sledding accident that occurred in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1904. Ethan Frome also authentically depicts what life was in rural New England communities during the turn of the century. The inhabitants of Starkfield speak with a characteristic New England dialect and face realistic issues like debt, unemployment, and the expansion of the railway system. In addition, Wharton accurately portrays the inadequate education that girls received during this time period and explores how traditional gender roles, as well as the stigma around adultery and divorce, negatively impacted American marriages.
Throughout Ethan Frome, Wharton places great emphasis on nature, to the point that the novel’s physical landscape begins to feel like its own character. Through her use of evocative visual imagery and figurative language, Wharton depicts the environment as a harsh and unforgiving force that wields incredible influence over human lives. Starkfield is located in the rural Berkshires, where the short growing season and poor mountain soil made it difficult for farmers to produce enough crops to turn a profit. As a result, farmers like Ethan often remained in poverty. Starkfield winters also have a profound emotional and psychological impact on the town’s inhabitants. Characters like Ethan and Zeena, who have lived in Starkfield for “too many winters,” become withdrawn and suffer from illness and feelings of isolation.
Mainly as a result of this setting, the mood of Ethan Frome is primarily bleak and lonely.