In Edith Wharton’s introduction to Ethan Frome, she complains of New England fiction that it fails to faithfully represent “the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked.” Hence Starkfield, and the tale that she had to tell, as she saw it, “starkly and summarily,” of “granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate.”
I doubt I have read any of the regional literature Wharton was contrasting her efforts with (though I should), but I like the way she thinks. New England is picturesque, but the harsh, wintry existence eked out in Ethan Frome is at least as real. The narrator, like Wharton, describes Ethan as “a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface,” and it’s just what he proves to be. Western Massachusetts is a fitting place for stoicism.
That warmth beneath the surface is important though, because no matter how many cold New England winters have blanketed Ethan with another layer of snow, there is a desperate anguish to his life. When he finally lays it bare, taking Mattie to the train station on her way back down to Stamford, is when he’s really crushed under the weight of this damned harsh place, and it’s not until a generation later when the narrator is in town that his trouble is really uncovered again.
Speaking of Mattie, she is, in part, an example of what happens when you leave the granite. Her part of the family “went down” to Stamford, and after leaving the depths of New England they turned soft. Her father cheated his family members and left her with nothing; now she’s just a little slip of a thing that has to return to Massachusetts and can barely do housework. And Zeena sees her as a “bad girl,” “seducing” her husband. Well, Zeena, don’t worry. Even though “all the first winter…she had shivered with cold when the northerly gales shook the thin clapboards and the snow beat like hail against the loose-hung windows,” after a few more winters Mattie will have hardened to become as grey and bloodless as the granite mountains where Starkfield is nestled.