Note: Click here for more information on Quick Writes, the works I respond to, and disclaimers. Mistakes were kept unchanged. Also, spoilers ahead.
Date QW Written: December 8, 2015
In Ethan Frome, the bulk of the story is considered a large flashback in its frame structure; however through the first person narration of a story not experienced by the narrator himself (although the gender of the narrator is never truly specified — only one of many ambiguities), there is unreliability throughout the whole story. The novel literally opens with a warning to the reader that the story of Ethan Frome was initially filled with too many gaps. Rather than pitching a plot bunny to the audience, the warning serves a deeper purpose. The warning tells us that we can never understand or review the past even if we experienced it ourselves.
While Wharton’s story certainly underscores the sad, unchangeable circumstances of life, her novel also reminds the reader of the prevalent vogue complexities present when we view the past. Even when we ourselves look back at the past, our vision is tinted with forgetfulness and pretention, believing the us now is somehow obviously better than the us then. Therefore, in a story originally relayed by Harmon Gow, then Mrs. Hale, then by Ethan himself, and then by the narrator, the audience must take the story with much more than just a grain of salt. Even a spoonful of salt is not enough because we understand this truth when we realize there was not possible way the narrator saw the cat “lay watching them with narrowed eyes” or Zeena’s anguish when carrying the broken dish “as if she carried a dead body.”
Yet, like all of her devices, Wharton’s use of unreliable first-person narration in a frame story plays an effective part her message of the perpetuity of circumstance. The novel essentially starts and ends with the end; the outcome of Ethans story, despite whatever happens in the between, will never change. No matter however distorted the story itself can get, either from passionate blindness or the vague tellings of a neighboring woman, the end will always remain the same — even if the “quarelous drawl” is not who we expected.
Note: This was my teacher’s note at the end of my quick write: “so, it may suck your will to live BUT damn, it is so insightful — this (yes, ambiguouspronounreference) is the better Sharon…”