The Narrator relates the prologue from his point of view. An engineer on temporary assignment for a power company in Corbury Junction, he's staying at Mrs. Ned Hale's in Starkfield. A strike delays his work, giving him an opportunity to observe the citizens of Starkfield, and Ethan Frome in particular.
The Narrator notices Ethan Frome at the post office and is struck by the spectacle of a strong man crippled by physical and mental pain and despair. Upon inquiry among the townspeople, he learns that Ethan is the victim of a "smash-up." His curiosity whetted, The Narrator questions his landlady and Harmon Gow about Ethan's character and his accident, but they do not satisfy The Narrator's desire to know more about Ethan.
The Narrator had been using Denis Eady's horses to get to Corbury Flats to catch the train to the Junction, but all of Eady's horses suddenly become ill. The Narrator acts on a suggestion made by Gow and employs Ethan as a driver. On a trip back to Starkfield with Ethan, a terrible snowstorm causes Ethan to give The Narrator a night's shelter at his farmhouse. When The Narrator walks into the farmhouse he hears a woman's monotonous voice complaining nonstop. The night at the Ethan farm furnishes The Narrator with enough information to put together his vision of Ethan's tragedy.
In the prologue, Wharton sets the frame for the main story. The prologue (and epilogue) take place some twenty years after the events of the main story and are written in the first person. The Narrator (who is nameless) tells about how he pieced together the story of Ethan Frome from personal observation and from fragments of the story told to him by townspeople. The prologue not only introduces The Narrator, but also describes Starkfield and the winter setting, inhabitants of Starkfield, and provokes curiosity about the tragedy experienced by Ethan Frome.
According to The Narrator, Ethan constitutes the remains of a once powerful and sensitive man, now bound and frustrated by the crippling effects of a sledding accident. Even though Ethan is only fifty-two years old, he looks as though he is "dead and in hell." Wharton builds suspense when she reveals that The Narrator is also intrigued by the look of incredible suffering and despair that he sees in an unguarded moment on Ethan's face. Wharton provokes curiosity about the tragedy that has robbed Ethan of his life.
Wharton provides minimal information about Ethan. Harmon Gow shares the sad history of the deaths of Ethan's parents and of Zeena's sicknesses, and he adds the comment that "most of the smart ones get away," implying that Ethan was smart, but unfortunately was unable to leave Starkfield.
The themes of silence and isolation are introduced by the author. The Narrator is impressed with Ethan's solitude and apparent withdrawal into a protective shell. Ethan gives the postman a "silent nod" and would "listen quietly." He responds briefly, in a low tone, when spoken to by one of the townspeople.
Gradually, more of Ethan's character emerges, especially after The Narrator has talked with Ethan during the trips to Corbury Flats. Ethan's intelligence is confirmed for The Narrator through Ethan's interest in a book of popular science, and a parallel between Ethan and The Narrator is established when they reveal that they have both been on engineering trips to Florida. Wharton implies that The Narrator is the kind of man Ethan might have become if he had not become trapped in his marriage. Ethan did the right thing according to the accepted rules of society by caring for his wife; however, it wasn't the right thing for him. Ethan pays the price by never achieving his potential. According to The Narrator, Ethan lives in a "depth of moral isolation."
The most important use of symbolism in the novel is the winter setting, which is first described in the prologue and carried throughout the main story. Harmon Gow's assessment of Ethan early in the prologue is that he has endured too many Starkfield winters. From that point on, winter presides over the tragedy in all its manifestations of snow, ice, wind, cold, darkness, and death. The Narrator speculates that the winters in Ethan's past must have contributed to his current silence and isolation.
Wharton uses battle imagery to describe the way winter conquers Starkfield. The Narrator mentions "the wild cavalry of March winds" and he understood "why Starkfield emerged from its six months' siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter." The winter season is predominant: Ethan's memory of his trip to Florida seems to be covered with snow. Even the name of the town, "Starkfield," is significant as a symbolic summation of the moral landscape of the novel. It implies the devastating and isolating effects of the harsh winters on the land and the men who work the land.
The conclusion is that the ravages of winter destroy both man's will to survive and the buildings he constructs to shield him from his environment. The "exanimate," or lifeless, remains of Ethan's sawmill are an example. The Narrator comments on the landscape that also suggests the debilitating effects of winter: the "starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside" suggests the barren land that starves men rather than feeds them. The dead vine on the front porch of Fromes' farmhouse is symbolic of the dead and dying spirits that inhabit the house and its adjacent graveyard. And as The Narrator observes, Fromes' farmhouse "shivers" in the cold and looks "forlorn." After his important description of the "L" shape of the house — "the long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to the main house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and tool-house, with the wood-shed and cow-barn" — The Narrator perceives that the farmhouse is symbolic of Ethan himself. The house's function appears to be a place of confinement and isolation for its inhabitants.
Wharton easily changes the focus from The Narrator's first impressions to the dramatic action of the journey taken by Ethan and The Narrator in the snowstorm. It is ironic that a blinding snowstorm forces The Narrator to take shelter in the Frome farmhouse — it opens his eyes to Ethan's story. Thus, the breaking off of the narration just before the door opens increases the suspense and prepares the reader for The Narrator entering the farmhouse in the culmination of the tragedy in the epilogue.
colonnade a series of columns set at regular intervals, usually supporting a roof or series of arches
pulled me up sharp caused a person to take notice
chronicle a narrative; history
mien a way of carrying and conducting oneself; manner
taciturnity the fact or condition of being almost always silent, uncommunicative, or not inclined to talk
touch a hundred turn one hundred years old
chafed annoyed; irritated
beleaguered beset, as with difficulties; harassed
portico a porch or covered walk, consisting of a roof supported by columns, often at the entrance or across the front of a building; colonnade
flagged made of flagstone, as a walkway or path
innocuous that which does not injure or harm
reticent habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn
oracle a person of great knowledge or wisdom
grit stubborn courage; brave perseverance; pluck
got a kick was kicked in the head
incarnation any person or thing serving as the type or embodiment of a quality or concept (the incarnation of courage)
sentient of, having, or capable of feeling or perception; conscious
snowed under forgotten
unseal his lips encourage to talk
exanimate without animation; spiritless; inert
querulously in a manner inclined to find fault; complainingly
provocation something that provokes; especially, a cause of resentment or irritation; incitement