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The novel of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is a story within a story because the narrator is detached from the actual events that happen to Ethan Frome and the members of his household. The narrator acts as a reporter of events based on his conversations with two sources—Harmon Gow, and Mrs. Ned Hale. The narration is subjective for the narrator only visualizes what could have happened based on the stories he has heard.
The story starts out more than twenty years after the incidents of the “smash-up” which makes the exposition rather, anti-climactic, as Wharton explains in her notes, since it is already partially revealed what would become of the characters. What the readers are actually reading is how the narrator interprets the stories he or she heard based on the accounts of Harmon Gow and Mrs. Ned Hale. Wharton chose to have multiple sources since just having one source is not enough to confirm the story.
Wharton is also trying to imply on the readers that the way history is collected is not very much different from how the narrator pieced together the stories—multiple sources that are subjective and finding the common ground between them. Harmon Gow is the first person that the narrator is able to squeeze information from. The narrator first describes in the introduction how he thought of Ethan Frome based on what Harmon Gow has told him. “There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.
See more: what is narrative writing
I had this from Harmon Gow,” (Wharton, 1911). Gow seems to be a reliable source since he has supposedly known the history of the families that he drives for. It is also Harmon Gow that tells the narrator about the “smash-up,” or accident that happened some twenty years ago that has caused the distinct mark on Ethan’s forehead and left him to be somewhat of a mobile cripple. Harmon Gow tells the story as detailed as he possibly can, but he tells the story in a general and detached way with “gaps,” as it were that can only be told by someone who is, or was intimate with the Frome family at the time of the “smash-up.
” “Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. ” (Wharton, 1911). This is where Mrs. Ned Hale fills in the gaps. Mrs. Ned Hale is the secondary source of the narrator, but not necessarily less important source. In fact it is her that fills up the “gaps” that the narrator is talking about, and the gaps, according to the narrator, is where the deeper meaning of the story lies.
If Harmon Gow provides the “Cliff notes” to the story of Ethan Frome, Mrs. Ned Hale provides the more in depth, critical account of the story. Mrs. Hale claims that she used to be close with the Frome family but since the accident, her visits became less and less. She was reluctant to tell her version of the story at first but her curiosity got the best of her and got into a conversation with the narrator who has just returned from a rare visit to the Frome’s household.
She reveals in the end, all the important pieces that filled the gaps, she provided a more personal account of the story since she used to be close with the family. Through the construction of the narrative of the story, Wharton is able to show how history is collected, interpreted, and confirmed—history is just a collection of subjective accounts gathered from various sources that somehow show some consistency and therefore a relative truthfulness in them.
Wharton, Edith. (1911). Ethan Frome. New York: Scribner’s New York.