Ethan Frome Writing Style
Full of Gaps and Tricky Foreshadowing
In the Prologue the narrator gives us some important information:
Though Harmon Gow developed the tale […] there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. (Prologue.16)
Although the narrator is talking specifically about Harmon Gow's version of the story, he's also giving us a suggestion on to how to read the story of Ethan Frome that he has "put together" (Prologue.65). This is a suggestion to pay attention to what has been left out of the story, and to be on the alert for holes and gaps that we can explore.
This brings us to an interesting discussion of punctuation. You probably noticed that Ethan Frome is full of these little guys: "…" The three little dots… The ellipsis…What does an ellipsis do? It lets us know that something has been left out, that there is a gap in the story.
So take a look at the fifty ellipses at the end of the Prologue, and the forty-three ellipses (and an apostrophe – which also lets us know something is missing) at the end of Chapter 9.
What is going on here? A big gap. Lots of things are left out. What do these ellipses look like to you? Black dots? Drops of blood on snow? Like some kind of frantic code?
So we've established that what's left out is a big deal in Ethan Frome's style. Well, what is left out? Zeena's story and Mattie's story. At the end of the novella we don't really know what moves them, what drives them, what they are all about. As a woman writer concerned with women's issues, Edith Wharton would have been interested in the female point of view. She could be making the point that the woman's point of view is often forgotten or left out. Ruth goes as far as to say that it is Ethan "that suffers most" (Epilogue.25).
Other things are left out too. For example, the narrator tells us that when he spent the night at the Frome house, he figured out Ethan Frome. What does he mean? Maybe he got the clue from Mattie, maybe from Ethan, maybe from Zeena. Maybe he read something, or saw something that opened up the mystery. All we can do is imagine what the clue might be.
We found another important thing that is left out of the story. Check out what Ruth says:
"They gave her things to quiet her, and she didn't know much till to'rd morning, and then all of a sudden she woke up just like herself, and looked straight at me out of her big eyes, and said..." (Epilogue.19)
What could Mattie have said to Ruth? Whatever it was, Ruth didn't like it, and can't even repeat it. This might be signaling us to the fact that no story is completely knowable, and that "the deeper meaning is in the gaps" (Prologue.16). The gaps are places we can fill with our own imaginations, thoughts, and feeling. In this way we can make the story our own.
But we aren't done yet. Foreshadowing is another very important element of Ethan Frome's style. One of the first things we hear Mattie and Ethan discuss is the elm tree, and its power to cause death to innocent people sledding:
She lingered, pressing closer to his side. "Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed." Her shiver ran down his arm. "Wouldn't it have been too awful? They're so happy!" (1.31)
As we discuss in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" death is constantly foreshadowed in this story. But no one actually dies. That would be too easy. Wharton put a new twist on things. The seeming death foreshadowing is actually foreshadowing the final lines of the story, spoken by Ruth. (Check out "What's Up With the Ending?" for more). She says that Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena, are living in state even worse than death. Wharton's relies heavy on this foreshadowing to build suspense and keep the readers' interest alive.