Ethan Frome Edith Wharton's Novel Ethan Frome Essay

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Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome describes the tragic lives of three inhabitants of a New England town. It is told from a peculiar narrative perspective, however: the novel begins with an unnumbered chapter, told from the perspective of an unnamed first-person narrator. I hope to demonstrate that Wharton uses this narrator to illustrate a fact about Ethan Frome's tragedy, one which suggests that the larger story here has religious implications.

It is worth noting that, although Ethan Frome is a story about adulterous love, Wharton deliberately makes her narrator male. Orlene Murad suggests that this is because of resemblances between Frome's story and Edith Wharton's own autobiography: both were married to invalids, and therefore drawn to adulterous love. Wharton, however, did not suffer the fate that Ethan Frome does. This explains the paradox of the novel's construction: as Murad notes, the narrator "enters Ethan's mind, expresses Ethan's thoughts with more sophistication than Ethan could possibly be capable of, and reveals acts and ideas of Ethan's that no one in Starkfield could have known and have been the source of the narrator's information." (Murad 94). The question of an author's identification with the main character of the story is therefore relevant, especially because the story told here as tragedy is not unlike the real story of Edith Wharton's life.

This raises the question, however, of why Wharton should give the novel a tragic theme. In the opening section of the book, when
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the narrator is speaking in the first person, he describes his first glimpse of Ethan Frome in the town of Starkfield:

"Good God!" I exclaimed. At the moment Ethan Frome, after climbing to his seat, had leaned over to assure himself of the security of a wooden box -- also with a druggist's label on it -- which he had placed in the back of the buggy, and I saw his face as it probably looked when he thought himself alone. "That man touch a hundred? He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!"

Harmon drew a slab of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a wedge and pressed it into the leather pouch of his cheek. "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away." (Wharton, 2)

We are already told that Frome's woeful physical condition can be blamed on Starkfield itself, but there is the additional sly suggestion here that being in Starkfield is indistinguishable from being "dead and in hell." Wharton makes the irony of this intentional -- Frome is described as "the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man." (Wharton 1). The suggestion here is that Frome is somehow representative of the place, almost an architectural feature like a "ruin" -- and described by Harmon as being similarly long-lasting, expected to last one hundred years despite external appearances.

The irony here is that, in some way, Wharton…

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Works Cited

The Book of Psalms. King James Version. Bartleby.com. Web. Accessed 25 March 2012 at: http://www.bartleby.com/108/19/89.html

Murad, Orlene. "Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome." Modern Language Studies 13:3 (Summer 1983): 90-103. Print.

Trilling, Lionel. "The Morality of Inertia." In Wieseltier, Leon (ed.) The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008. Print.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.

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