The rise of Realism in 1855 was the time when farming began to industrialize, communication expanded through railroads, and Nationalism was yet again revived. On top of all these important transformations that have marked this period of time was the significance for literature with a new audience, new settings, and new characters. The novel, Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, is a magnificent example of literature from the Realistic period. First, Realism is a definite movement away from the Romantic period. Romantics wrote regarding the unique and the unusual, whereas in Realism, literature was written about the average and ordinary.
The town where the novel takes place is Starkfield, an average farming community. There is not much in the town that is of interest or anything extravagant to be known for. In addition, literature from Romanticism focused on hopes, while Realistic literature illustrated skepticism and doubt. The narrator describes the scene where Zeena declares to Ethan that her sickness is getting serious, saying, “She continued to gaze at him through the twilight with a mien of wan authority, as of one consciously singled out for a great fate.
I’ve got complications,’ she said” (108 Wharton). Hope for Zeena’s health is nonexistent, and she, being a hypochondriac, confirms the fact that she feels doubtful about life. The Romantics wrote about the unusual and hopeful, which are characteristics that are not strongly represented in Realistic literature. The second aspect of Realism is the idea of Regionalism. One indication of Regionalism in literature is the characters’ dialect. An excellent depiction of dialect is where Harmon Gow says, “Wust kind, . . . More’n enough to kill most men” (6).
His regional accent is shown by the spelling and punctuation, allowing the reader to have an idea of how Harmon would have said it. Another aspect of Regionalism is the customs and the way of life of the characters. One way of life that the characters are accustomed to is the normality of marriage between cousins. As this practice is not enthusiastically accepted everywhere, it brings the Regionalistic aspect to the novel. Regionalism, which includes the characteristics of dialect and customs, is a critical component of Realism.
Third, Realistic literature uses the concept of Naturalism. In Ethan Frome, the bleak winter setting is a primary clue that nature plays a key role in the story. Nature is displayed as a powerful and malevolent force that is indifferent to humankind. In the novel, the narrator once stated, “But when winter shut down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there–or rather its negation–must have been . . . ” (7). This statement depicts the winter seasons in Starkfield as gloomy and undesirable weather.
Aside from the setting, the basic animal nature of humans also draws out the Naturalistic traits in Realism. The narrator tells what was going through Ethan’s mind following the smash-up, ” . . . and far off, up the hill, he heard the sorrel whinny, and thought: `I ought to be getting him his feed. . . ‘ ” (172). At such an intense moment, Ethan’s animal nature brings him to think about tending to his hungry horse instead of caring about his and Mattie’s teetering lives. These examples signify the sense of nature and its forces used in the literature of Realists.
Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome, is a wonderful example of Realistic literature. Its style shows signs of a distinct shift away from Romanticism and illustrates the aspects of Regionalism and Naturalism, two major components of Realism. Authors of the Realistic period depicted life as typical, everyday people lived and knew it to be, using these important points. The ordinary characters that dealt with common problems and situations in the literature brought a new group of readers, establishing a unique new era that has changed the way people perceive life forever.
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