What are some rhetorical devices in Ethan Frome?

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In addition to the questions asked above, readers of "Ethan Frome" also want to know: Summary: Ethan Frome is a novel by Edith Wharton, first published in 1911, which tells the story of Ethan Frome, a man who has become a prisoner in his own life after a tragic accident. After this accident, he is trapped with an unhappy marriage and unfulfilled dreams. As the story progresses we see how this tragedy affects him and the people closest to him. The tale is one of tragedy and sadness but also contains love and hope. The novel was written largely based on Wharton's personal experiences in New England during the late 19th century.

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Let's first define what constitutes a "rhetorical device."

The Guide to Literary Terms by eNotes has an ample index with all the information you need to best understand how authors use their craft.

In the guide, the definition of "rhetoric" reads:

..the theory and principles concerned with the effective use of language or the theory and practice of eloquence, both written and oral. It consists of the rules that govern all prose composition or speech designed to influence the judgment or feelings of people

This said, a rhetorical device is a product rhetorical language. It is the use of words to cause a reaction, or make an effect, in the audience. This effect does not have to be some colossal reaction. Instead, rhetorical language effectively engages the imagination in a way that the reader can see and feel exactly (or close to) what the author sees and feels.

When reading Ethan Frome, the reader can feel sensations and create visuals that may or may not be part of their own life experiences. This tells you right away that the use of rhetorical devices is effective.

The most salient rhetorical devices in Ethan Frome are:

  • imagery, or using descriptive language to paint a vivid picture of what the author describes, complete with sounds, scents, sights, and sensations.

Anyone who has ever lived through long, cold winters may be able to understand the feeling of frigidity, stagnation, melancholy, boredom, and desperation that Edith Wharton infuses in her narrative as she describes the town of Starkfield. Even more frustrating is the fact that nothing in Starkfield is meant to flourish, particularly, in the family line of the Fromes.

As such, all the images you see in the novel are cold, sterile, and lackluster. Starkfield is not a winter wonderland, but far from it.

... I had been struck by the contrast between the vitality of the climate and the deadness of the community.

[...]a blazing blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back in an intenser glitter. One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield.

  • similes, or comparisons between two or more things that are not typically comparable. Typically, a simile uses the prepositions "as" or "like" to establish the comparison.

We see the use of comparisons from the perspective of how Ethan felt with Mattie compared to how he feels with everything and everyone else.

Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw.

This example in chapter 2 shows that Ethan and Mattie's laughter felt like a frozen stream that starts to thaw, or melt slowly, due to a source of warmth. The warmth is the feeling of infatuation that Ethan feels for Mattie, and vice versa.

  • symbolism, or the use of objects, colors, and even characters, to represent ideas and other abstract thoughts.

Let's look no further than Zeena's red pickle dish. This pickle dish is Zeena's most beloved wedding present. It is the last vestige of what once was a normal marriage—perhaps one which was even passionate and hopeful. This is represented by the color red.

The fact that the dish is so fragile also symbolizes the state of the Frome's marriage. Lastly, the fact that Mattie took it without permission to use it with Ethan during a dinner behind Zeena's back supports the theory behind the symbolism of the dish. Moreover, Mattie's actions caused a chain reaction involving the cat, who caused the precious red dish to slip to the ground and come crashing down. When Zeena finds out, it is clear that she felt the loss of this dish quite deeply.

[Zeena gathered] up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body...

This shows even more clearly that the dish symbolizes the impending crash of the relationship in itself.

For more information on how Edith Wharton used her rhetorical devices to create a place and a society like Starkfield, read the 1983 publication "Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome" by Orlene Murad. It was published by Modern Language Studies (vol 3. num. 3).

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Rhetoric in fiction can involve the writer's persuasion of the reader as well as internal rhetorical instances from character to character. Ethan Frome is both muted in its delivery of themes and tragic in a horrifying way. Wharton was communicating a mode of life that was stark (hence the symbolic name of the town Starkfield) in a way that many readers, even of that period, would have found dark and behind the times. The reader is persuaded of the very barrenness in multiple ways. We are told that most of the young people who could have gotten out of Starkfield would have done so, making it a surprise that Frome has stayed for what will evidently be his entire life.

In the framing narrative, Frome himself is described as a wreck of a man. His crippled condition is such that he seems to be yanked by a chain with every step he takes. He has had to take the "L" out of his farmstead; this is a sign of how reduced his circumstances have become. Apart from Frome, the bleakness of the setting is emphasized over and over. The winter almost seems to be worse when it's not snowing, with the monotony of the clear, frozen days, though snow is always on the ground. The relentless description of nature is itself a rhetorical device.

Wharton builds the tension until the final pages when, in her description of Frome's current household at the close of the frame-story, she shows us how hopeless the outcome of the "accident" has been. This withholding of the facts until the end is a device that persuades us of the immense tragedy: Ethan is stuck forever with Zeena, a woman he has no feeling for, and Mattie is paralyzed.

Among the characters themselves, what rhetoric we see is oblique. People communicate by indirection. Zeena returns from the out-of-town doctor to tell Frome she has "complications." Though we have no reason to think she doesn't believe herself seriously ill, her behavior is part of a manipulative pattern with Frome. Similarly, her anger at the broken pitcher is exaggerated and self-serving. These "guiltings" are what lead to the final tragedy, though Frome's possible life with Mattie was a hopeless dream anyway.

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Of course, any work of literature contains a number of rhetorical devices, and this excellent novel is no exception. Let us remember that rhetorical devices allow the speaker to try and persuade their audience to try and see things from their point of view, or convince them about their argument. If we look at the introduction of this novel, we can see that one paragraph contains a number of different rhetorical devices. Consider the following quote:

When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.

This quotation is given to us by the narrator to describe the "stark" nature of "Starkfield" (no pun intended!). The narrator's experience of winter where he is sojourning makes the bleak existence of the Starkfield residents clear. He uses a simile to compare the citizens of Starkfield to a "starved garrison" that fight against the winter, and an extended metaphor compares winter to an invading army that is trying to gain access to the garrison. Also note the alliteration in phrases such as "crystal clearness" and "six months' siege." All of these are rhetorical devices that try to show the reader what an oppressive place Starkfield can be in the winter, and how, during the long, cold winter, the snow does not just bury the settlement but also their individual hopes and dreams, as is the case with Ethan Frome.


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