The story of Ethan Frome starts off as a narrative from the perspective of an engineer who remains nameless throughout the story and portrays his feelings throughout the timeline. The events start 20 years prior to the main story of the character Ethan Frome and give an insight of the knowledge of the 20 years of events which fast-rewinds back to the story’s original timeline. Ethan Frome is a friendly man the Narrator comes across during his visit to the post office. The Narrator who is working on a project temporarily in Massachusetts grows a great interest in Ethan Frome. The Narrator’s curiosity leads him to question his landlords, Mrs. Ned Hale, and Harmon Gow (former stagecoach drivers) about Frome’s background. They provide the Narrator with chunks of information that fuel his curiosity towards Ethan further and he wants to know more about him.
Since the Narrator is new in town and does not know his way around, he is unable to ride the trains. One of his landlords, Gow, suggested that he could get rides from Ethan back and forth since the commuting path is very similar. Ethan gladly accepts and they start to commute in and out of their places together. This is something that the narrator wanted as he wanted to know Ethan more and this was the first step in getting more familiar with him. One day the weather is so bad that Ethan suggested the Narrator stay at his place. They make their way into Ethan’s home and that is when the narrator hears a woman shouting from his apartment. Upon hearing Ethan’s voice, the woman becomes silent and all the events from the 20 years past starts to unfold the histories about Ethan Frome.
Ethan Frome always had the ambition to become an engineer. This persuaded young Ethan to study in a tech college and eventually land on a small engineering job. He had better plans of shifting to a metropolitan city where he could make good use of his intellect and be paid well to have a better lifestyle. However, all of his plans and dreams had come to a halt after the death of his father and the deteriorating health state of his mother. Ethan had to immediately return to Massachusetts from Starkfield in order to take care of his mother as she was alone with his father gone. Ethan had to give up his dreams of becoming an engineer and started to take care of the sawmills and run the family business. In this course of work, he had realized that he would not be able to do all the work by himself since the pressure was too much for him to take. In order to divide the work up for more efficiency, he decided to include his cousin Zenobia to handle the business with him and hence made arrangements for her in the sawmill. In time, Zenobia or Zeena had become a great business partner and she also took care of Ethan’s mother, taking care of the household chores so that there was less pressure on the mother. However, Ethan’s mother died soon afterwards and he was left all alone. In fear of having to see everything for himself all alone, he made the decision of marrying Zeena. Ethan, even though had to derail from the path of his passion due to family reasons, had not given up on his dreams. In order to revive them, he had attempted to sell a portion of his business so he could move to the metropolitan city like he always wanted. But he failed to do so and his wife Zeena, in the meantime, also became very ill. She suffered from an array of illnesses and she had been extremely cranky and illogical in terms of behavior with Ethan.
The main plot begins from this point when Ethan drives from his sawmill to the church to pick up Mattie Silver. Mattie Silver is introduced to be Zeena’s cousin whose parents’ death had left her in a very critical situation. Zeena, feeling bad for her cousin, had let her stay with Ethan and herself and she’d been living with them ever since. Although she had been extremely thankful for having a roof over her head and meals every day, she was a bit of a daydreamer who would in times, forget about doing the chores she was assigned to do and eventually get scolded by Zeena.
The setting of the opening in the church where Ethan had to pick her up was the place where the characters unfold their romantic interest for one another. Mattie had been in the church dance, socializing with the people. She dances with a guy called Denis Eady, a local grocer and proprietor of stables. Seeing this Ethan starts to feel jealous when he sees the man flirting with Mattie. Eady offers Mattie a ride back home which Mattie refuses and Ethan makes sure his presence was known. Mattie then goes with Ethan and walks home with him. The both of them reach home quite late and Zeena opens the door after she got up from bed to let them in. Zeena herself had fallen so ill that she looked deformed from her face to her toes. She obviously could suspect that something was going on between Ethan and Mattie but does nothing rash. She decided to announce that she would be visiting a new doctor the next morning and will be gone overnight. This gives a chance to Ethan and he thinks of making good use out of it since having Zeena out of the house for a night never usually happens. Zeena informs them that she would be staying over at her Aunt Martha’s place and asks Ethan to give her a ride to the station the next day. Ethan refuses and states that he had to go visit Hale who is the owner of the construction company Ethan worked for and receive his money. However, Ethan had no intention of meeting Hale and he had lied in order to avoid taking Zeena to the station. He felt guilty afterwards and went to see Hale out of guilt who refused to pay him.
After Zeena left, Mattie and Ethan decided to spend some quality time together, something that they cannot do quite easily. They settled on having a nice, romantic dinner where Mattie cooked a fine dish for Ethan and served it in the best plates that Zeena owned, one of them which was made of a red-glass and was pretty extravagant looking. However, the red dish was short lived as the cat knocked it off the table and broke it to pieces. Ethan seeing this pieces them together and puts it back on the shelf so he can glue it together before Zeena comes back. Meanwhile, Mattie and Ethan ended up spending the night drowned in each other’s conversation.
The next day Ethan gets to work and keeps in mind that he has to get glue for the broken dish. On his way back, he finds Zeena already home and hence he would not be able to fix the dish. Zeena informs him that she had to come back home early because she needed to tell him about the complications she had in her health and that she needed a hired girl with her at all times. This suggested to Ethan Mattie needed to leave so that the hired girl can have her bedroom. Ethan had no say in this since Zeena had already arranged for the girl she was supposed to hire. Ethan, enraged, tried to talk to Zeena but he soon realized that it was of no use and she would have her own way anyway. He breaks the heart-shattering news to Mattie who is shocked and upset. Zeena on the other hand, finds out the red dish which was broken into pieces and this infuriates her. The writer had implied that the red china dish was a gift of Zeena’s from her wedding and she cherished it a lot. Having seen it broken agitated her but that was how her marriage already was - a broken glass ornament only pieced together. Ethan and Mattie, who’d rather die than stay apart, decided to sleigh under the cursed elm tree at the end of the path. The elm tree was known to bring deaths to the people who chose to sled on this path. Hoping to find peace, they both set off but sadly, none of them died and only left severe injuries which handicapped Ethan and Mattie. After their recovery from the injuries, Ethan had been able to provide for the three of them by working on the farms. The story moves to the part of the Narrator where he hears the bickering voice of the woman and she was none other than Mattie herself. In sickness and ill health, she had become very much like Zeena and sometimes the difference cannot be told by even Ethan.