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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The plot of Ethan Frome is very simple. A poor young woman comes to live with her poor rural relations on a remote farm, and she and the husband fall in love. Since circumstances prevent their ever being permanently together, they take matters into their own hands, and tragedy results. What is interesting about Ethan Frome is the point of view that Edith Wharton chose in writing the novel.
There is a frame to the core story of the book. The device of choosing a narrator who "sees" the story unfold is complicated because the narrator cannot "see" everything, and a tragedy is not so much about judgment as it is about sympathy. By having a narrator piece together several accounts in order to "tell" the story, Wharton gives a variety of views, and sometimes the views conflict. As a result, the reader must make some choices about the characters. The novel ends, however, with Mrs. Hale's point of view. She clearly states that it would have been better for everyone, especially Ethan, if Mattie had died in the accident. The narrator does not question her judgment.
The actual recounting of events in the core story, which occurs over a period of three days, shifts into the omniscient third person point of view. In so doing, Wharton allows the reader to see the thoughts and feeling of the protagonist, Ethan Frome; and the whole story is colored by him. When the narrator returns again in Chapter 10 (the Epilogue), he is in Ethan's house, observing the results of the accident. It is a pathetic sight.
For the last few details, the narrator moves out of the Fromes' world and back to the gallery of commentators in town, represented by Mrs. Hale. She fills in some details on the smash- up immediately following the accident. She gives the explanation as to why all three pathetic characters still live together. Ultimately, Edith Wharton writes about the inevitable results of circumstance as they play out on life.
Edith Wharton's tale of a poor country farmer is still read because she closely portrays the complexity of a believable situation. All the characters have perfectly human desires, all do what they can, and all of them pay dearly for their mistakes. In spite of the circumstances, they still persist, but in misery. Ultimately then, Ethan Frome is a moral tale. Marriage is a lifelong institution that cannot be escaped through fantasy or frivolity. Health and "caretaking" are not to be taken for granted. And death is not always a certain solution. The every-man quality of the characters also points to the idea that fate can be cruel.