How Reliable Is The Narrator In Ethan Frome?

1359 words - 6 pages

I quote: “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

This opening paragraph encapsulates the main ideas of my presentation today. How reliable is the narrator in Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome?

Edith Wharton uses the narrator’s sketchy account of Ethan Frome’s life to generate mystery and insecurity in the story. She uses the nameless engineer as a device to deliberately establish a feeling of uncertainty, as well as creating suspense for the reader. Through the collaboration of each version of Ethan Frome, including in the end the narrator’s version, he and his life seem more of a myth than ...view middle of the document...

He hopes to relieve his curiosity by finding the key to Ethan’s story that makes him so significant. It is not until he finally comes into contact with Ethan and is invited into his home that his questions begin to be answered.

Harmon Gow adds a casual tone to the text as he speaks with poor diction and grammar. He is portrayed as a very laid-back man who is willing to tell a story when he can. He developed the tales of Ethan (quote) “as far as his mental and moral reach permitted”. The narrator is quite aware of this, although he is willing to hear what he can when he has the opportunity.
Harmon draws out only the surface description of Ethan, leaving (quote) “many perceptible gaps between his facts”. Although after reading the novel one might reflect on this first picture given of Ethan as accurate, Harmon still fails to reveal the “deeper meaning of the story” which has, in effect, been lost within these gaps.
“Sickness and trouble” is Harmon’s simple summary of what Ethan has inescapably had to deal with throughout his life. This only briefly touches upon Ethan’s distresses, which are later revealed to be much more profound. Wharton’s plain choice of words expresses a simplistic and ignorant view. Although Harmon may (quote) “know the chronicle of all the families”, he only really knows the public side to their lives. The concealed account of the existence of the Fromes can only be found through personal contact with them and their lives, something that later the narrator has the chance to do.
The narrator adds his interpretation of Harmon’s account to the depiction of Ethan, and, although the story is steadily expanding, there are yet more “perceptible gaps” within it.
Wharton uses the technique of foreshadowing, or purposely leaving gaps in the story, to continue the momentum and the suspense of the story yet to come.

Mrs Ned Hale contrasts strongly with Harmon, as “the accident of finer sensibility and a little more education” meant that she judged “with detachment”. Despite being the only remaining friend of the Fromes to visit the house, Mrs Hale continues to keep to herself any insight she has on the harsh isolation of their lives. Being close to them, in particular Mattie, Mrs Hale is emotionally attached to their story and unwilling, and in some ways incapable of, sharing any information. Her silence not only frustrates the narrator, it also intensify his need to know more, and in effect heightens the reader’s curiosity.

When the engineer hires Ethan to take him to and from the Corbury Flats each day, this opens a window of opportunity for him to find out the truth and fill in the gaps left by Harmon and Mrs Hale. This also gave Wharton the opportunity to show the reader the true person Ethan is; despite the fact that he has retreated behind a...

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