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Literary Devices in Ethan Frome

Frame Story: The novel uses this technique (also known as “story within a story”) by beginning with the unnamed narrator’s desire to find out more about the mysterious Ethan Frome. Through Frome’s own words, the drama of the previous twenty-five years unfolds. Because readers know what will become of Ethan—he will be scarred but alive and living with a woman—the retelling of Ethan’s life is colored with a sense of inevitability, since the events retold cannot be altered. The main questions that linger in readers’ heads are what brings Ethan to be a “ruin of a man” and which of the two women remains with him.

Literary Devices Examples in Ethan Frome:


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"IHAD THE STORY..."   (Prologue)

By telling Ethan’s history through the frame of a narrator hearing the events after they’ve happened, Wharton sets the reader up to feel a sense of confinement throughout the rest of the novel. Ethan’s story has already happened—the damage has been done. Just as Ethan is constrained to live the life his past choices have determined, the reader must relive Ethan’s choices with both the narrator and Ethan himself.

"Starkfield..."   (Prologue)

Starkfield, Massachusetts is the fictional setting of this novel. The adjective "stark" is synonymous with something that is bare, harsh, or grim. These descriptors are befitting of both Ethan's life as well as his surroundings.

"I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp..."   (Prologue)

This type of narration is called "first-person peripheral." The first-person narrator is not telling his or her own story, but someone else's. In Ethan Frome we get this type of narration in the Prologue (prior to the novel) and the Epilogue (after the novel). The actual novel is told in 3rd person (limited) omniscient.

" the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow..."   (Chapter I)

This section emphasizes the contrast between the snowy, icy white that Ethan is surrounded by prior to speaking with Mattie, and the vibrant colors that are used to describe his surroundings after. Winter is associated with a lack of vibrancy and liveliness. The sudden use of color suggests that Ethan associates Mattie with exactly what winter lacks.

"cold fires..."   (Chapter I)

Wharton’s use of oxymoron (a literary device in which the author uses two contradictory terms in conjunction) highlights conflicting dualities throughout the novel such as determinism versus free will, nature versus man, and duty versus passion. Here, the oxymoron emphasizes the effects of a bitter winter on the human spirit. Consider the word “cold” in relation to the constellation Orion’s distance. This might signify an ominous event looming in the distance.

"dead cucumber-vine..."   (Chapter II)

Vining cucumbers can only grow in the warm summer months. The dead cucumber-vine immediately reminds Ethan of his wife, Zeena, as he wonders, “If it was there for Zeena—”. Recall that Zeena has been associated with winter before, but here, the cucumber-vine symbolizes death—nothing can thrive in Zeena’s presence.

"Their arms had slipped apart..."   (Chapter II)

Note that despite the awkward and tense tone of their conversation for the last few moments, it is Mattie’s mentioning Zeena that leads them to break their hold on one another. Her name functions as an interruption: both had largely forgotten about Zeena for the time being.

"freedom to find fault without much risk of losing her..."   (Chapter III)

Ethan’s bias again reveals itself here. Ethan has stated before that Mattie is not very good at her job, but since this is a flashback of a time before Mattie was hired, Zeena would not have known she was a bad worker. Ethan’s assumption that Zeena hired Mattie to “find fault without the risk of losing her” may be true, but we do not get Zeena’s perspective. This bias places the reader in the mindset of Ethan’s guilty conscience as he attempts to justify his actions.

"had not even touched her hand...."   (Chapter V)

While both Ethan’s and Mattie’s actions have signalled romantic interest in one another, the affair has remained emotional rather than physical, even while Zeena was away. Ethan moves his hand towards Mattie in the hopes that she will take it, but she does not. The very last line of the chapter reminds readers of this fact, and it highlights Ethan’s disappointment that the night did not develop as he might have hoped. However, it also reads as a kind of denial of guilt—it is not a real affair yet because he has not even held her hand.

"I ought to be getting him his feed…..."   (Chapter IX)

Recall that just as Mattie and Ethan were considering crashing the sled into the tree, Ethan paused at the sound of the horse’s whinny that Ethan noted meant that the horse was, “wondering why he doesn’t get his supper.” The fact that the novel ends on this line is interesting to note because it suggests that the thought that stands out in Ethan’s dazed mind even during the aftermath of his crash is that he has a duty to fulfill. The horse must get his dinner, that is the routine, and Ethan must follow it.

"poor-looking place..."   (Epilogue)

Note that the description of the Frome house reflects the Fromes’ current financial situation. With two people who are ill now instead of one, Ethan’s meager earnings go even less far than before. The china plates are all broken and the “furniture was of the roughest kind.” Ethan’s attempt to escape his circumstances failed and his situation is now worse than ever. Consider that Ethan wanted to die with Mattie in order to be with her in the grave forever. Ethan and Mattie are together but forced to live with the consequences of their actions by living in squalor with Zeena—something that Wharton highlights using the description of the Frome household here at the end.

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