Wharton began the story that became Ethan Frome in the early 1900s as an exercise in writing for a tutor she hired to improve her French conversational skills. She based the tale on her experiences of several summers' residence at the Wharton country home in Lenox, Massachusetts. The early form of the story is three chapters of straight narration in French without prologue or epilogue; Mattie and "Hart" (Ethan) know they love each other at the beginning of the story, and after "Anna's" (Zeena's) visit to town to hire a girl as Mattie's replacement, the lovers are forced to part. Waiting for the train to take her away, Hart swears to desert Anna and follow Mattie; Mattie emphatically rejects this idea, and so the French version ends.
Wharton put aside the French tale for a few years and when she approached it again, she made radical changes in structure and theme. Most obviously, she added the device of a frame narrative — bracketing the main story with an epilogue and prologue written in first person. The idea of a frame narrative was clearly taken from Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book and from a short story of Honoré de Balzac's, "La Grande Bretêche." Balzac's story is about a traveler who visits a small village and becomes fascinated with an old house. Wishing to find out about it (as The Narrator of Ethan Frome is made curious when he sees Ethan leaving the post office), Balzac's traveler asks the villagers about the house, and the story is gradually put together by compiling a composite of different bits of information. In theme, Ethan Frome's vision of frustration, catastrophe, and prolonged pain and despair reflects a maturity and complexity of thought not apparent in the earlier vignette Wharton composed in French.
Serialized in Scribner's Magazine from August to October in 1911, Ethan Frome was published in book form the same year. Popular response was enthusiastic, and critics and reviewers praised the finely crafted structure as well as the bleak, naturalistic vision of New England country life. The book showed that Wharton's talents were by no means limited to novels of New York society manners. Wharton used the New England locale again in a novel, Summer (1917), and a short story, "The Bunner Sisters." As in Ethan Frome, the two later efforts show the stifling effect of the environment on individuals who try without success to break away and then fall back into smothering frustration and despair.