The narrator, a labor negotiator working in Starkfield, Massachusetts for the winter, begins to describe his fascination with the tall, powerful, but seemingly aged and lame Ethan Frome. He gathers information from such village stalwarts as Harmon Gow that Ethan had been involved in a terrible sled smash-up over 20 years ago and had had to stay in Starkfield and take care of the family farm after his parents' deaths. Harmon, who knows the chronicles of all the families in Starkfield, tells him that the Frome family has always been a tough, hardy line and that even though Ethan was badly hurt because of the accident, he has the durability to live to be one hundred years old. According to Harmon, Ethan's parents had become sickly and Ethan had had to care for the run-down Frome farm by himself, and then after his parents died, his own wife, Zeena, had become sickly, too. The narrator, fascinated by the endless troubles that have plagued Ethan throughout his life, tries to gather more information about him from Mrs. Ned Hale, who is initially reluctant to share her memories of the smash-up. The narrator later finds out from Harmon Gow that Mrs. Hale was the first person to arrive at the site of the smash-up over twenty years ago.
Because of an illness that strikes the horses of the Starkfield stables, Ethan Frome offers to take the narrator over to his job at Corbury Junction, and the narrator's interest in the silent Ethan grows, even though Ethan is reluctant to divulge information about himself. When the narrator casually refers to an engineering job that he had once held in Florida, he discovers that Ethan is also interested in the same field as he is. He is also surprised when Ethan reads one of his books on popular science that he had accidentally left in the sleigh. But Ethan is hesitant to discuss his interest in more detail, especially because he seems frustrated that he had never heard many of the new theories and concepts that had emerged in the world of science while he had been mired in Starkfield.
On one ride, Ethan points out to the narrator the location of his dilapidated farm. The narrator notices that the "L," which connects the main house with the woodshed and cow-barn, is missing from the house. The absence of the "L," which symbolizes a life connected to the soil and inspires a feeling of nourishment and warmth, reflects the absence of vitality within the house and the absence of hope within Ethan's life. The narrator realizes that the slow diminishing of the once-beautiful Frome farm may have coincided with the eventual deterioration of Ethan's once-powerful body.
One day, an extremely heavy snowstorm hits Starkfield, with the bitter cold and thick, silent snow bearing down steadily and nearly freezing Ethan and the narrator in the sleigh. Even though the dependable Ethan still manages to drive the narrator to work through thick snow, he does not dare to drive him home during the storm. Ethan invites the narrator to stay at his home overnight, and as they enter the house, the narrator hears a woman's querulous voice complaining tirelessly. He ends the chapter ominously - you can almost hear scary-movie music in the background - by telling the audience that on this night, he begins to piece together the story that he gathers of Ethan Frome.
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