In Edith Wharton's bleak novel "Ethan Frome," the characters face challenging moral questions about personal responsibility, loyalty and duty. The novel is told with a frame narrative, with many of the events taking place in an extended flashback. The narrator arrives on the scene 20 years after the tragic accident that has shaped the characters' lives. As the narrator learns the story of those events, so does the reader, and the novel's plot takes shape.
A story's exposition introduces the main characters, the setting and the central conflict. The expository portion of "Ethan Frome" first introduces the narrator, who will be the conduit for the story. He is spending the winter in Starkfield, Massachusetts, and he becomes intrigued by Ethan and wants to know how he acquired his limp. When he cannot learn the story from the townspeople, he hires Ethan to be his driver for a week. A snow storm hits, and Ethan is forced to bring the narrator back to his home to wait it out. The narrator begins learning Ethan's story through a flashback that opens with Ethan watching his wife's cousin, Mattie, at a church dance. He feels great passion for Mattie, but he is already married to her cousin, and the tension between his feelings and obligation sets up the conflict for the story.
The Rising Action
The rising action of "Ethan Frome" follows the growing tension between Ethan and Mattie. When Ethan's wife, Zeena, announces that she will go out of town for medical treatment, Ethan is excited to spend time alone with Mattie, who is living with the couple to help care for Zeena. Though they enjoy a nice dinner together, they never speak of their feelings and never touch. The action builds suspense and tension in the story. The rising action continues when Zeena returns home early and declares that she will replace Mattie with hired help. This complication impels Ethan and Mattie to act, and they finally declare their feelings for one another and kiss.
After revealing his feelings, Ethan feels desperate, which leads to the climax. Though he considers running away with Mattie, he knows that he cannot because of his finances. Instead, he tells Zeena that he will be the one to drive Mattie to the train station. In the climax, the two decide to pull over on the way to the station and take a sled ride. Disconsolate about their situation, Mattie proposes that they run the sled into a tree and kill themselves, and Ethan agrees. They hit the tree, and the scene ends with both of them on the ground staring at one another, gravely injured. The flashback ends on a note of suspense because the reader does not yet know that Mattie is the old woman whom the narrator meets at the beginning of the novel. It is still possible that she has died in the accident.
Falling Action and Resolution
The falling action and resolution take place in the present day of the novel. The narrator has learned the full details of the accident, and he now knows -- as does the reader -- that Ethan has continued to live with both Zeena and Mattie for the past 20 years, being in love with Mattie but honoring his duty to Zeena. The reader also learns that Mattie has become paralyzed, while Ethan suffered a limp. However, both suffered much more damage to their spirits than to their bodies.