In chapter one of Ethan Frome, how can the atypical engineer be trusted by the reader as a narrator?Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Among the traits of the typical engineer are a strong analytical and logical mind; an engineer has a mind for detail and is technically educated; he also possesses a skilled manner of communication.

The narrator of Ethan Frome, who has been sent on a job connected with the powerhouse at Corbury Junction that is delayed because of a carpenters' strike,finds himself at odds at first; however, he settles into a routine as he finds himself "anchored at Starkfield." There he learns of Ethan Frome, and after the town's horses fall ill in an epidemic, he must rely on the broken figure of Ethan Frome to drive him to the train in Corbury Flats.

That the narrator is atypical of a technical, mathematical, and analytical engineer is evinced in his comments about Frome as he first rides with him,

Ethan From drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero....He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence.

Here a more artistic and intuitive personality, rather than a dispassionately logical and analytical nature that characterizes the narrator/engineer. To conceive of Frome as heroic and almost mythical, is clearly a supposition on the part of this narrator. However, he does typically communicate well with Frome, who offers him shelter for the night at his farm. And, the chapter ends with the narrator telling the reader,

It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome and began to put together this vision of his story.

The use of the word vision yet suggests that the narrator is not constructing a story that is totally factual, totally documented, totally objective; this action on the part of the narrator is atypical, also. Thus, as critic Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes,"it [the story]bears the imprint of the narrator's own interpretation,and is, therefore, somewhat ambiguous." Wolff concludes that the narrator's relating of Frome's tale wavers from concrete reality in that it depicts his own

shadow self, the man he might become if the reassuring appurtenances of busy, active, professional, adult mobility were taken from him.

The line between the narrator as the teller, and the narrator as part of the story often become confused, and because of this ambiguity, the story is not one of a typical engineer. And, certainly, Chapter I indicates the narrator's personal perceptions of young Ethan's feelings which could easily be reflective of his own as he walks through the snow and looks into the windows. Lines such as these,

It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most intensely the sweetness of this 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.

suggest the blurring of the lines between the narrator as storyteller and the narrator as part of the story.

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Ethan Frome

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