by Edith Wharton
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Dazzled, Infatuated, Loyal, and a little Condescending
In the Prologue the narrator makes it clear that he is dazzled by Ethan Frome, and Ethan's kindness, strength, and intelligence, as well as his injury and his silence. Like the Starkfield snow, Ethan blinds the narrator to everything but the mystery of his story. The narrator is interested not so much in Mattie or Zeena, but in Ethan. This intense loyalty to Ethan's viewpoint, makes us feel like the novella is being told by someone who really cares about the man, and who truly understands him.
The dazzle, infatuation, and loyalty of the narrator for Ethan echo the dazzle, infatuation, and loyalty of Ethan for Mattie and for nature. Appreciation of the natural beauty of the world they live is a big part of Mattie and Ethan's relationship. Edith Wharton's descriptions of this natural beauty (she spent ten years in Connecticut before writing Ethan Frome) help spin the tone of this tragic tale.
Yet, for all this there is a sense of condescension, even violence toward the characters that seems to come from outside either of the narrative schemes (See "Narrator Point of View"). When we read Wharton's "Author's Note" to Ethan Frome we can see that it's coming from Wharton herself, and is a big part of her motivation for writing the story. In this introduction Wharton describes her characters as "granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate." Let's break that down.
First of all, "granite outcroppings" are chunks of granite that stand above the ground. Granite is a kind of rock that forms after liquid volcanic rock has cooled. In other words, a piece of granite has been through a lot, but is also very strong. Wharton's granite outcroppings (i.e., her characters), though, are half buried underground. It's the last clause of the sentence that really interests us, and makes the condescending tone of her novella more understandable. She says that her characters are "scarcely more articulate" than the rocks. In short, she wanted to represent uneducated people, who have a hard time expressing themselves. That she is so hard on them, and sometimes seems to be making fun of them, comes across as condescending. We'll give you an example:
And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to him once: "It looks just as if it was painted!" it seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul.... (1.11)
Here Wharton is very articulate. She offers this gorgeous description of nature. But the comment that Mattie makes is probably one Wharton would have held in contempt. Paintings, after all, she might have said, are less beautiful than the real thing. Wharton also manages to poke fun at Ethan here. If he thinks that Mattie comment is the limit of "the art of definition" then he isn't very clever either. We don't particularly like this side of the novella's tone, but want to point out that it's there.