The narrative and moral ambiguity in Ethan Frome
First published in 1911, Ethan Frome is now considered a classic of twentieth-century American literature. A tale of lost opportunity, failed romance and disappointed dreams ending with a botched suicide attempt that leaves two people crippled and dooms another to a life of servitude, Ethan Frome immerses its readers in a world of unrelenting pain and misery. To some, the suffering endured by Wharton's characters is excessive and unjustified; to others, the novel addresses difficult moral questions and provides insightful commentary on the American economic and cultural realities that produced and allowed such suffering. Others still look to the novel for clues about the author's own life. However, no explanation is completely satisfying because regardless of the meaning one chooses to find in the novel, this meaning, like the vision put together by the narrator, will inevitably be shrouded in mystery and ambiguity.
Much of the discussion about Ethan Frome involves the frame story with which the novel begins. Although the framing narrative and the story embedded within it are told by the same unnamed narrator, the reliability of the latter is made problematic by the various and varying sources used to construct it. Also, by introducing his story as a "vision," the narrator makes very clear the fact that what we are about to read is not a factual record of the occurrences leading up to Ethan's accident, but his own impressions of what those occurrences may have been. As several critics have pointed out, the only "facts" of Ethan's story are to be found in the narrative frame; the information contained within the frame cannot be considered reliable because, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff explains, it "bears the imprint of the narrator's own interpretation." His vision is a "hypothesis," one vision among many possible others. Wolff argues that Wharton's novel is not about Ethan Frome, but about the narrator and his reaction to the story he tells. Pointing to the "disconcerting similarities" between Ethan and the narrator, she suggests that the narrator's vision depicts his own "shadow self, the man he might become if the reassuring appurtenances of busy, active, professional, adult mobility were taken from him."
Jean Franz Blackall offers another possibility. Blackall agrees that the narrator's knowledge is based on inference but believes there is evidence in the text to support his story. He finds this evidence in the final pages of the novel, arguing that Mrs. Hale, who was with Mattie on the morning after the accident, corroborates the narrator's intuitive discovery. According to Blackall, the ellipses representing Mrs. Hale's unfinished report of what Mattie told her signifies that she knows about the love affair between Mattie and Ethan and their subsequent suicide attempt. However, it is important to remember that Mrs. Hale never actually tells the narrator what it is she heard Mattie say; a sense of shared secret knowledge between her and the narrator is suggested but never confirmed.
Complicating the debate over the novel's narrative structure even further is Orlene Murad who, believing that a biographical tie exists between Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome, argues that it is the author herself who narrates the "vision." Murad believes there is nothing in the narrator's character that would make him capable of so lyrically articulating Ethan's thoughts and actions. Instead, she believes that Wharton abandons the "engineer-narrator" of the first part of the novel and "continues her story as its omniscient narrator." Murad even suggests that Wharton "becomes" Ethan Frome, explaining that the author can so well enter into Ethan's point of view because she is experiencing Ethan's dilemma herself. By creating a character "who painfully takes on the burdensome care of those for whom he is responsible," Murad claims that Wharton "has fashioned a scapegoat" and has pushed onto Ethan the grueling life that her own marital circumstances might easily...
(The entire section is 7,330 words.)