Greetings readers! Dead White Guys returns with our reading of the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. We’ll cover a chapter a week for the next ten weeks, beginning today with the novel’s prologue, which introduces the unnamed narrator and titular character. Wharton is a master of bleak landscapes and tortured protagonists–which may be partly responsible for her inclusion in the canon–so you can expect to find plenty of both.
Ethan Frome is a novel by hearsay, delivered in bits and pieces to a character–and by extension to the reader–completely external to the events, much in the way of Wuthering Heights.
In this case, the novel’s narrator travels to the town Starkfield, Massachusetts on behalf of the company he works for–but a local strike significantly hinders his progress. He’s waiting in line at the post office when he sees Frome for the first time approaching in his cart. He’s immediately arrested by the man’s appearance, noting:
Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man.
He inquires about Frome and learns from the stagecoach driver that he had had an accident some twenty-four years earlier, which left him lame and old beyond his years. The narrator likewise remarks that although Frome comes into town regularly to get his mail, there’s rarely anything for him except for the local paper.
Starkfield is not the sort of place one lingers if there’s a choice, and Frome, the narrator learns, has been kept there by obligations to family needing care.
That might be the end of the matter, except our narrator is bored and somewhat curious about Frome, so he asks his landlady, Mrs. Hale, for more information. Usually happy enough to pass judgment on her neighbors, she doesn’t give him much in the way of gossip, piquing his interest further. Wharton doesn’t draw this out particularly much–rather she moves the story along by way of nature.
Our narrator loses his usual way to the train station and Frome volunteers to substitute for a small fee. This doesn’t immediately lead to a warm friendship between the two, because Frome is taciturn above all else, but they do bond very briefly over a book the narrator accidentally leaves in his cart. It sparks some sort of regret in Frome, but still, communication is sparse.
It’s only after a particularly bad snow storm that the narrator gets any sort of insight into Frome’s life. Unable to press on farther to town, they take shelter in Frome’s home.
It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.
Now, to a certain extent, Wharton is simply using a common literary device for her era. Many such stories are delivered secondhand, from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What’s intriguing about Wharton’s use of the method is what it reveals about character. Frome is isolated and uncommunicative. It is unlikely we would hear his story from him, the way we do Pip’s in Great Expectations or Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn.
Frome’s story is buried deep and can only be excavated in pieces by an outsider–the people in Starkfield know as much as they need or want to know. Consequently, our narrator needs to be both completely ignorant of Frome’s history and intensely curious about it, both traits he possesses, on account of his boredom and station. He’s taken with Frome’s appearance and intrigued by his interest in the book. This is a man with a story, a man whose life may have been very different but for circumstance.
This acknowledges, of course, that this story is incomplete and our narrator perhaps untrustworthy. Not to the degree Nick Carraway is in The Great Gatsby, but certainly not objective and not entirely informed. There is already a fancy and romanticism about his interest in Frome, although perhaps that is also true about Wharton’s relationship to the character. Then again, as a character, the narrator serves no other purpose and has no other agenda than to tell the story. He is, in some sense, a blank canvas onto which we as readers might imprint ourselves.