I quote: “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
This opening paragraph encapsulates the main ideas of my presentation today. How reliable is the narrator in Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome?
Edith Wharton uses the narrator’s sketchy account of Ethan Frome’s life to generate mystery and insecurity in the story. She uses the nameless engineer as a device to deliberately establish a feeling of uncertainty, as well as creating suspense for the reader. Through the collaboration of each version of Ethan Frome, including in the end the narrator’s version, he and his life seem more of a myth than anything real.
Wharton has structured the novel out of chronological sequence, as the prologue and epilogue, which form the outer frame, are some twenty years after the central story. The prologue and epilogue are written in the first person as an outsider to the lives of the key characters narrates the story.
The Narrator, an engineer, has been forced to remain in Ethan Frome’s town of Starkfield for the winter while on a job and, like any newcomer, is curious about its inhabitants. The greatest curiosity is built around the most mysterious of characters: Ethan Frome.
In the beginning the narrator describes Ethan as being “a careless powerful” man who is “stiffened and grizzled”. This creates quite a negative image of the character. He uses a dismissive tone when he says he “took him for an old man”, even though he was not more than fifty-two. This initial observation from the narrator is harsh and insensitive because he has no knowledge of the struggles Ethan has had to overcome. It also gives the reader a false impression of the main character before the central story has begun.
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The Narrator expresses his interest in Ethan to his new acquaintances in the town, Harmon Gow and Mrs Ned Hale. He hopes to relieve his curiosity by finding the key to Ethan’s story that makes him so significant. It is not until he finally comes into contact with Ethan and is invited into his home that his questions begin to be answered.
Harmon Gow adds a casual tone to the text as he speaks with poor diction and grammar. He is portrayed as a very laid-back man who is willing to tell a story when he can. He developed the tales of Ethan (quote) “as far as his mental and moral reach permitted”. The narrator is quite aware of this, although he is willing to hear what he can when he has the opportunity.
Harmon draws out only the surface description of Ethan, leaving (quote) “many perceptible gaps between his facts”. Although after reading the novel one might reflect on this first picture given of Ethan as accurate, Harmon still fails to reveal the “deeper meaning of the story” which has, in effect, been lost within these gaps.
“Sickness and trouble” is Harmon’s simple summary of what Ethan has inescapably had to deal with throughout his life. This only briefly touches upon Ethan’s distresses, which are later revealed to be much more profound. Wharton’s plain choice of words expresses a simplistic and ignorant view. Although Harmon may (quote) “know the chronicle of all the families”, he only really knows the public side to their lives. The concealed account of the existence of the Fromes can only be found through personal contact with them and their lives, something that later the narrator has the chance to do.
The narrator adds his interpretation of Harmon’s account to the depiction of Ethan, and, although the story is steadily expanding, there are yet more “perceptible gaps” within it.
Wharton uses the technique of foreshadowing, or purposely leaving gaps in the story, to continue the momentum and the suspense of the story yet to come.
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Mrs Ned Hale contrasts strongly with Harmon, as “the accident of finer sensibility and a little more education” meant that she judged “with detachment”. Despite being the only remaining friend of the Fromes to visit the house, Mrs Hale continues to keep to herself any insight she has on the harsh isolation of their lives. Being close to them, in particular Mattie, Mrs Hale is emotionally attached to their story and unwilling, and in some ways incapable of, sharing any information. Her silence not only frustrates the narrator, it also intensify his need to know more, and in effect heightens the reader’s curiosity.
When the engineer hires Ethan to take him to and from the Corbury Flats each day, this opens a window of opportunity for him to find out the truth and fill in the gaps left by Harmon and Mrs Hale. This also gave Wharton the opportunity to show the reader the true person Ethan is; despite the fact that he has retreated behind a façade since the “smash-up”.
Upon this interaction with Ethan, the engineer sees more accurately the man Ethan was in youth. He is (quote) “like the bronze image of a hero”. This simile used by the narrator effectively conveys the character of the young Ethan that is reveal to the reader later on. Ethan has had to be the hero all throughout his life; firstly looking after his father, then is mother, then his wife, Zeena, and now, even after the accident, he still needs to be the provider for his family. [QUOTATION]
As the narrator begins to understand Ethan he sees (quote) “there was nothing unfriendly in his silence”. What many may see as Ethan being cold and unsociable, the narrator realises it is only a (quote) “pretence of reserve”. Wharton again uses the narrator to build upon the developing picture of Ethan’s character.
Just as each resident of Starkfield has their version of Ethan’s story, so too does the narrator. However, by the end of the novel his version may be more truthful than the rest as he has been able to (quote) “put together this vision of his story”. Despite the insight the narrator gained from his personal contact with Ethan, there is still uncertainty and possible fabrication in many aspects of his account.
Wharton deliberately uses the word ‘vision’ to describe the primary section of the novel. From one definition the word vision is described as “an idea perceived vividly in the imagination”. The word then implies the story of Ethan Frome is from the imagination of the narrator, and therefore may include many fictional aspects.
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The narrator reveals the night he spent at the Fromes’ only gave him the “clue” to their story. This suggests that even then he wasn’t told the full story, he is using this gained insight into their lives to enhance his own version of the story.
The narrator’s vision then becomes the main section of the novel. It is written in the third person and to begin with one may take it to be the factual account of Ethan Frome’s life. However the closing statement of the prologue subtly gives the point that the engineer has imagined this version and the extent to which it is correct remains unknown.
Throughout her novel Edith Wharton incorporates the use of characters and literary devices that produce the many possible interpretations of the events she describes. She has a controlling style and with carefully chosen vocabulary she conveys specific impressions of characters and events in the story. Interpretations may vary, yet the idea is there throughout the prologue and leading into the major section of the novel that this version of Ethan’s story has been devised from the mind of the narrator.
In the end, the myth that has been built around Ethan Frome gives the feeling that next time it will be a different story again.