The characters of Ethan Frome are negatively affected physically, psychologically and symbolically by winter setting that the author deliberately displays in this novel. The author, Edith Wharton, masterfully describes the geography and weather, to set the tone and mental conditions of the main characters. The main characters Ethan, Mattie and Zeena all live a bleak and bitter life, which closely parallels the winter environment of these characters. The effects of the winter setting are a repeated theme through out the book as it symbolizes the physical and psychological isolation and darkness that surrounds the characters. .
From the beginning pages of Ethan Frome, it is clear that there are physical effects from the environment that characters live in. One of the first descriptions of Ethan Frome is that there was something "bleak and unapproachable in his face" (3) and he appeared to be "stiffened and grizzled" (4) to the point that the narrator thought that he was an old man. Harmon Gow directly links these attributes to one fact, "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters" (7). Too many winters have transformed the physical attributes to the point that he has aged beyond his years. All of these years affected him to the point that Ethan Frome paralleled his environment so well that, "He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe" (14). Ethan Frome is not the only one who was affected by Starkfield's winter wonderland. His wife Zeena was given a harsh and unappealing description, "She sat opposite the window, and the pale light reflected from the banks of snow made her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless" (64). The light that bounced off the Starkfield snow did not help the appearance of this woman. It is clear that prolonged exposure to this winter setting affects the characters physically in a negative fashion, but it also seeps into the characters psyche as well.