The opening line of Ethan Frome suggests an unreliable narrator, ‘I had the story, bit by bit, from various people’, thus suggesting that the story of Ethan Frome shouldn’t be taken at face value and that interpretations should be based on the reliability of the narrator. In addition to this, the narrator, who is never named, appears to air a sense of superiority, ‘Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted’, the narrator has made a judgement on somebody he barely knew and therefore highlighting a definite sense of judgement and superiority in his persona.
Wharton communicates a sense of failure on Ethan’s part by describing him as, ‘but the ruin of a man.’, the use of the word ‘ruin’ suggests that the foundations were laid for Ethan to become a great man and achieve something life, yet he had let life erode him away to nothing but a ‘ruin’. There is also a suggestion that there has always been something preventing Ethan from completing his ambitions; ‘each step like the jerk of a chain’ is almost as though there is something tied around Ethan averting him from breaking away.
The suggestion of failure or incompletion is emphasised with ‘smash-up’, the use of the word smash provokes a sense of utter destruction and of something that isn’t repairable. In relation to Ethan Frome, this destruction could mean both emotional and physical. This lack of achievement in Ethan’s life is also represented when Harmon Gow says, ‘he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.
Most of the smart ones get away’. The significance of ‘Starkfield’ is also important in terms of the location, stark suggests bare and nothing there, whilst a field is a place where things grow and flourish in, therefore suggesting Starkfield is a place of stunted growth and traps people in it’s hold and that Ethan Frome is one of the ones who became stuck.Wharton uses the surroundings a lot to symbolise something involved with Ethan Frome or his story, for example Starkfield is ‘snow covered’ which suggests that everything is covered up and not everything is quite what it seems, for example holes in the ground are covered up by the snow and it’s only when you step over them that you suddenly fall into it and it is too late. In addition to this, the missing L barn on Ethan’s home is a fundamental part of the building which links the home area to the barn; this could represent Ethan missing a fundamental part of him.Ethan Frome is communicated as an unapproachable character, Wharton characterizes Ethan Frome as animalistic, for example ‘he was so stiffened and grizzled’, which provokes a sense of bear-like and something you wouldn’t want to approach without caution. Frome anonymous persona shows that Ethan doesn’t interact at all with his community, unless he has to.The narrator wants us to get the impression that Zeena is a negative character within the story, for example a name like ‘Zeena’ is sharp and hard whereas ‘Mattie Silver’ is a lighter name and sounds more appealing, this is a deliberate attempt to contrast the characters. Zeena is also portrayed as somewhat threatening towards Ethan, ‘from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade’, although Zeena was a threatening and aggressive character to Ethan now she is little more than a dark shade upon his life. Zeena doesn’t seem to talk either; she appears to more of an inconvenient whine in the background of Ethan’s life. We are also led to feel sorry for Ethan, yet his thoughts are ghastly towards his wife, for example, ‘tied to the door for a death … If it was there for Zeena’. Once again Wharton uses the surroundings to represent characters and the ‘gooseberry bushes’ which are sour.Mattie on the other hand in comparison to Zeena is completely different; she’s young, beautiful and attractive. For example, ‘cherry’ suggests fruitfulness, fertility, blood, passion and virginity. Mattie’s scarf is described as red, which provides connotations such as sin or devil like in her ways. There is a sense of excitement surrounding Mattie, for example the pace picks up around her, ‘light figure swinging from hand to hand in circles of increasing swiftness.’ This really creates a sense of liveliness and being alive, emotional when arguably Ethan was dead inside until he met Mattie.