I’m a fault finder. It’s just what I do. I especially love finding faults with literary masterpieces. Apart from the challenge, it proves that transcendent novels and reading experiences are from coarser stuff made. There’s something hopeful in that. So fault finding isn’t so bad, after all. It’s a form of theodicy in reverse.
In the case of Ethan Frome, one doesn’t have to look too long to discover, if not a problem, at least a glaring incongruity.
Enter the nameless narrator.
He frames a story about bitter cold winters in Starksfield, MA. About wavering shadows beneath spruce trees, hemlocks, and elms. Big menacing elms. Fateful elms. And about an unlikely threesome between a sad disappointed husband, a sick querulous wife, and a sweet-natured but fairly hapless young woman, who invites little splashes of red from Wharton’s embarrassingly rich palette of colors: A red sunset, a red scarf, a red ribbon, a red dress, a red pickle dish, and, rather ominously, a red and white quilt. All of which is very much in keeping with the passion that pulses just beneath the surface of things, right before splattering on the pure white snow.
So, who is this narrator?
Well, he’s a natural enquirer with a gift for gab. He draws people out of their reticence, as he does with Mrs. Ned Hale and Norman Gow. And he gets people to talk about the slightly taboo. He’s got money, too, enough cash to cover his costs on his extended stay in Starksfield, and enough to lament the “hard compulsions of the poor.” He works at a power plant. He’s an engineer, likely a manager or a supervisor, with an interest in science, especially bio-chemistry, the latest developments of which he follows in Popular Science.
Now, have you ever met a scientific-minded engineer from the managerial class who thinks or writes like this?
We came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe.
Or who smuggles poetry into prose…
When the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village, and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support, I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitualting without quarter.
I haven’t, either.