Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
Ethan lives outside Starkfield on his own infertile farm, where he ekes out a meager living by the force of his labor in the fields and in the sawmill that he has inherited from his father. Ethan is the embodiment of the landscape, an “incarnation” of its frozen woes. Even as Wharton describes the loneliness and the accumulated cold of the hard, lean winters in the Berkshire Hills, she is also describing her protagonist. His life is as harsh as the climate, and his world as desolate as the village in winter.
Frome farm. Ethan’s farm outside Starkfield, with a lonely New England farmhouse that seems to make the landscape even lonelier. Its starving apple trees grow out of a hillside on which slate is more visible than cleared fields. The ugly house is made of thin wooden walls in need of paint. It is smaller than it was in Ethan’s father’s time because Ethan has removed the “L,” which the narrator describes as the center or “hearthstone” of the New England farm. This suggests to readers how Ethan’s life has narrowed, while the narrator sees in the “diminished dwelling” an image of Ethan’s “shrunken body.” The barren land reflects Ethan and his wife Zeena’s childless marriage, and his unsuccessful sawmill serves as a reminder of Ethan’s inability to get ahead.
The farmhouse is homelike only on the night that Zeena is absent. When Mattie decorates the table with Zeena’s treasured red glass pickle dish, a wedding gift that Zeena herself refuses to use even for guests, Mattie transforms the drab house with that single little bit of color. When she and Ethan share their evening meal free of the misery caused by the whining Zeena, they briefly experience warmth and conversation that contrasts tragically with their normally cold, silent meals.
Ethan’s property also includes a graveyard, which serves as a focal point for all the novel’s images of death. A dead cucumber-vine dangles from the porch like a crepe streamer tied to a door for mourning. Other farmhouses dot the landscape like gravestones; the graves of Ethan’s ancestors mock any momentary desire for happiness. Indeed, there is even one headstone with the name Ethan Frome–the ancestor for whom the protagonist was named–that serves as a silent reminder of the death in life that pervades the novel.
School House Hill. Hill overlooking Starkfield that is the location of the climactic scene of the novel. The hill is also the site of sledding parties and moonlight kisses, but its hint of happiness and romance is always tempered by a dangerous curve at its base, where one mistake can mean serious injury or death. Here in the black and silent shadow of tall spruce trees that give Ethan and Mattie the feeling of being in “coffins underground,” the two make the suicide pact that leads to the bleak and bitter ending in which there is little difference between the Fromes on the farm and the Fromes in the graveyard.
Bettsbridge. Sounding like a combination of the names “Berkshire,” “Pittsfield,” and “Stockbridge”–all actual names from the western Massachusetts region, Bettsbridge is the fictional city that Zeena goes to when she feels the need to see another medical specialist. She also refers to visiting Springfield, a real city in central Massachusetts, where she consults doctors whose recommendations invariably require expenditures that further stretch the Fromes’ insufficient income.
*Worcester (WEW-ster). City in the east-central portion of Massachusetts where Ethan attends college (perhaps Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and studies engineering. This site represents Ethan’s lost opportunity. Now only a reminder of what Ethan wants out of life–intellectual stimulation and freedom to see the world–the memory of his life in the city provides a bitter contrast to his impoverished existence on the hardscrabble farm.