Edith Wharton's writing style is characterized by simplicity and control. Her choice of vocabulary and sentence structure, which is as stark as the lives led by her protagonists, is deceptive. Throughout the novel, Wharton builds up patterns of imagery, patterns of behavior, and specially charged words; all of which serve a definite stylistic and structural purpose.
One of the best examples of Wharton's careful control is seen in the descriptions of the events immediately before and after the "smash-up." As Mattie and Ethan ride the sled down the hill, Wharton captures the initial thrill of the speed and then Ethan's frenzied determination to drive them straight into the elm tree. Her prose slows down as she evokes Ethan's return to consciousness. Not only in this example, but everywhere in the novel, her style is restrained, so that the way the words are arranged enhances their meaning without calling attention to the cleverness of the arrangement.
Because Wharton refrains from using unnecessary, superfluous modifiers, her descriptions seem to be almost elliptical or incomplete. She chooses adjectives and adverbs carefully and uses them infrequently. Her imagery is always appropriate to the limitations of her characters and is simply and subtly stated. For example, when Mattie and Ethan spend the evening together, Wharton uses the imagery of warmth and cold to complement characterization. She uses adjectives related to warmth when describing Mattie, and adjectives related to cold to describe Zeena. Other examples of elemental nature found in Wharton's imagery are stars, the seasons, animals, vegetation, light, and darkness.
Wharton's use of structure contributes to the depiction of Ethan's tragedy. The prologue and the epilogue, which take place some twenty years after the events of the main story, are written in first person from The Narrator's point of view. Structurally, these portions of the novel constitute a "frame" around the story itself; however, this frame is more than a decoration. The prologue not only establishes the nature of theme and action, but also begins the characterization of Zeena and Ethan Frome. It also sets the important patterns of imagery and symbolism and starts a tone of omniscient narration throughout the body of the novel. Ethan is the only character who is thoroughly explored.
Wharton's attention to minor details and her use of structure to relay Ethan's complicated and tragic life story to readers enables her to portray her characters as victims of the rules of society.