Edith Wharton’s Introduction to Ethan Frome (1911)

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Sometimes it’s best for an author to introduce his or her own story; sometimes it isn’t. Is it better to have a dispassionate eye trained on the story to unearth hidden meanings and perspectives, or is it the author who knows the tale best? Here is Edith Wharton’s own introduction to Ethan Frome, her 1911 classic short novel.

A reviewer from the time when the book was published observed of its spare language and brevity: ” It is so short, a long short story, and not one word can be skipped in the reading. It is such a complete and perfect piece of work that the reviewer can only say — read it”

Has she expanded upon a readers’ view, or complicated the haunting tale? An argument can be made for either side. What do you think?


Edith Wharton introduces Ethan Frome

I had known something of New England village life long before I made my home in the same county as my imaginary Starkfield; though, during the years spent there, certain of its aspects became much more familiar to me.

Even before that final initiation, however, I had had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little — except a vague botanical and dialectical — resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen.

Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters, and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked. I give the impression merely as a personal one; it accounts for Ethan Frome, and may, to some readers, in a measured justify it.

So much for the origin of the story; there is nothing else of interest to say of it, except as concerns its construction.

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Edith Wharton books

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A short tale with a challenging structure

The problem before me, as I saw in the first flash, was this: I have to deal with the subject of which the dramatic climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation later then the first acts of the tragedy.

This enforced lapse of time would seem to anyone persuaded — as I have always been — that every subject (in the novelist’s sense of the term) implicitly contains its own form and dimensions, to mark Ethan Frome as the subject for a novel.

But I never thought this for a moment, for I had felt, at the same time, that the theme of my tale was not one on which many variations could be played.

It must be treated as starkly and summarily is life had always presented itself to my protagonists; any attempt to elaborate and complicate their sentiments would necessarily have falsified the whole. They were, in truth, these figures, my granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate.

… it was the first subject I had ever approached with full confidence in its value, for my own purpose, and a relative faith in my power to render at least a part of what I saw in it.


The difficulty of presenting fictional subject in fullest relief

Every novelist, again, who “intends upon” his art, his lit upon such subjects, and been fascinated by the difficulty of presenting them in the fullest relief, yet without an added ornament, or a trick of drapery or lighting.

This is my task, if I were to tell the story of Ethan Frome; and my scheme of construction — which met with the immediate an unqualified disapproval of the few friends to whom I tentatively outlined it …

The real marriage of my construction seems to me to lie in a minor detail. I have to find means to bring my tragedy, in a way at once natural and picture-making to the knowledge of its narrator.

I might have sat him down before a village gossip would would have poured out the whole affair to him in a breath, but in doing this I should have been false to two essential elements of my picture: first, the deep-rooted reticence and inarticulateness of the people I was trying to draw; and secondly the effect of “roundness” … produced by letting their case be seen through eyes as different as those of Harmon now and Mrs. Ned Hale.

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome: A 1911 Review from The San Francisco Call

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Presenting a mysterious case through multiple points of view

Each of my chroniclers contributes to the narrative just so much as he or she is capable of understanding of what, to them, is a complicated and mysterious case; and only the narrator of the tale has scope enough to see it all, to resolve it back into simplicity, and to put it in its rightful place among his larger categories.

… I have written this brief analysis — the first I have ever published of any of my books — because, as an author’s introduction to [her] work, I can imagine nothing of any value to [her] readers except a statement as to why [she] decided to attempt the work in question, and why [she] selected one form rather than another for its embodiment.

These primary aims, the only ones that can be explicitly stated, must, by the artist, be almost instinctively felt and acted upon before there can pass into [her] creation that imponderable something more which causes life to circulate in it, and preserves it for a little from decay.

— EDITH WHARTON  (from the 1930 edition of the 1911 novel)


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