Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

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.

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14 Responses to Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

  1. Frisbee says:

    Ethan Frome isn’t her best.

    My favorites are The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence.

  2. Yes, exactly! That narrator sounds suspiciously like a novelist.

    That last quotation is really good, but there is no way that guy tells a story that way, spoken or written.

    I’m going to write more about this next week, in the context of the crummy Charlotte Brontë novel I’m dragging through. Please remind me if I forget to link to you.

  3. D G Myers says:

    Kevin,

    I have tried to answer your question honestly here.

    —David

  4. […] Interpolations asks a question about the narrator of Wharton’s Ethan Frome and A Commonplace Blog answers. […]

  5. Sasha says:

    Kevin — I’ve been going back to your post for a week now, usually with my notes on Ethan Frome in tow. And although my first reaction was a wail of “Noooooo” upon reading your cautionary first lines, I’m going to have to suck it up, haha.

    I admit that I didn’t pay too much attention to the narrator when I was reading the book. Mostly because I found nothing wrong with him. He was a seamless transition between me and Ethan Frome’s life. I was conscious, though, that he was a conduit. And as someone who was predisposed — groomed, I daresay, by the author — to be an observer, someone basically distant from the history of the town: He was every reader who’d open the pages of Ethan Frome. He delivered the story. I give him his stylistic tendencies — he is still, after all, the product of an author’s imagination; he’s essentially been manipulated to tell the story the best way it can be told. [The narrator-author dynamic, augh, my head.]

    So. What did you like about Ethan Frome? :]

  6. Sasha! I’m delighted you dropped by. You complete my Sunday. What do I like about EF? Everything. Even its faults. (The narrator ventriloquizes Wharton a helluva’lot better than Wharton ventriloquizes a power engineer, and that by a good long shot.) I love the trees and the tension and the bitter sorrow. And I especially love Ethan, that poor sucker of an overworked man whose imagination is set on a hair-trigger to embrace anything that suggests liveliness and prettiness, etc. More on this tomorrow, I hope. Again, thank you for dropping by! Best, Kevin

    • Sasha says:

      The reason why it took me so long was that I didn’t know what to say, and once I had a clue, I didn’t know how to say it. So, I’m taking advantage of this Sunday. :]

      I think one of the best things I liked about Ethan Frome was how unexpected it was. I’d never read Wharton before, and I’m one of those lazy readers who can hardly tolerate descriptions of setting. It’s a terrible habit, I know. But Wharton made me pay attention. It was so vital to the story — Ethan and his winter misfortunes!

      So many things we can explore with this book. W/ Wharton’s choice of narrator: His motivations for telling this story, why he was drawn to the story in the first place. And Ethan: Kept asking myself afterwards, “Why, Ethan, WHY?” And the contrast between Zeena and Mattie. The “real” story.

      For a slim book, I could talk about it all day; we could all overdo this. And that makes me smile.

      Hope you have a great Sunday.

      • Interesting, your aversion to settings. I wouldn’t have gussed it. As for your “Why, Ethan, WHY?” I think I know! Being a guy and all… I’ll attempt an answer, I will. Best, Kevin

  7. I just finished my review of Ethan Frome, and Amateur Reader forwarded me the link to this post — I’m so excited that I’m not the only one who absolutely loathed the unnamed narrator! I was getting nervous reading the book because I loved The House of Mirth so much, that I thought perhaps not all of Wharton’s works were as good (other than The Age of Innocence and whatnot). Cringing through the first pages, I’m surprised I made it through to get to the actual meat of the story! Which I did love — just had to get past the snobbish narrator who just got fairly boring!

  8. That was nice of AR. Loathe the narrator? Not me. I rather like him. He’s curious and richly imaginative and has an eye for observation, and he’s somewhat comfortable in an alien environment. My gripe is that Wharton makes him sound like a first-rate novelist rather than a smart, well-educated engineer. But these are common problems. Just last week, I noticed that J. London stubs his toe, too. Hmm, think I’ll write about it…. Anyhow, did you forgive Wharton her narrator by the end of the novel, when she pulls back the curtain and reveals that the querulous voice belongs to Mattie? Off to explore your blog in a bit! Thanks for dropping by. Cheers.

  9. […] A good post on the unnamed narrator of the book. Indeed, he does read a lot like a novelist. […]

  10. […] Wharton stammers in Ethan Frome, so too does London in To Build a Fire. Throughout the story, London calls […]

  11. […] (November, close enough) with that same Wharton, Custom of the County. He has also read in 2010: Ethan Frome and House of […]

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