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Since its first publication in 1995, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien is, arguably, the greatest epic fantasy to ever be written. Encapsulating the classic theme of “good against evil,” along with its various subplots and well-developed characters; the novel’s depth and rich details make it a timeless piece of literature. However, the story’s true success lies in its exemplary balance between realism and fantasy. To achieve this dimension, Tolkien structures his novel through frame narrative– a story within a story in which the narrator provides both a context and history of the inner narrative. In the prologue of the The Lord of the Rings, a historical frame is developed when Tolkien addresses “The Red Book of Westmarch”, a theoretical and encompassing frame for all the stories of Middle Earth, including The Lord of the Rings. This putative outer frame, which is supposedly Tolkien’s source of narration, is imperative to the novel’s success and acclamation. It represents the greater realities of Middle Earth, the multilateral perspectives, and adds ample amount of depth to his already complex fantasies. Through the use of this device, readers are enabled to relate to such an imaginative universe. Likewise, in Edith Wharton’s highly acclaimed novel, Ethan Frome, a frame narrative is also utilized in order to add depth and realism. Wharton wrote the prologue and epilogue to constitute an all-encompassing frame around the tragic story of Ethan Frome. She uses this structure to relay Ethan’s complicated and plaintive life, while also influencing realism and the societal backlash from which Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena suffer from.
The frame structure, exemplified by the narrator in the prologue, is used as an intermediary to create the slightest bit of uncertainty, while also adding dimension to the storytelling technique. Both dimension and uncertainty are the building blocks of any real world and Wharton utilizes these elements in order to refrain from the utopian implications upon `her picture. Through the use of the frame story and narrator in the prologue, Wharton is able to introduce realism to her readers which not only adds to her rhetoric but also affirms a strong author-to-reader relationship. The unknown narrator first meets Ethan Frome at the local post office of Starkfield and is instantaneously intrigued by his appearance. The narrator recalls, “I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp.” (Wharton 3). The narrator’s curiosity, in this instance, is parallel to that of the reader’s. The element of uncertainty and dimension seen in the narrator’s development translates to the curiosity of the reader. Through this the tactical use of a frame narrative, Wharton is enabled to contemporize a reader into Frome’s journey.
The frame structure allows Wharton to prove her intentions of a realistic picture through the construction of, and attention to, “minor detail.” (Wharton xviii). She understands that the two most fundamental elements of her picture are “the deep-rooted reticence and inarticulateness of the people,” (Wharton xviii) and “the effect of “roundness.”’ (Wharton xviii). Like uncertainty and dimension, these elements also convey realism and are prevalent throughout the frame. Mattie Silver is a dynamic and round character, she is extremely realistic and increases in complexity alongside Ethan Frome. On the other hand, Ethan Frome being quiet by nature represents Wharton’s reticent intentions. The combination of the frame narrative, the narrator, and realistic intentions all come to a conclusion in the epilogue. Here, Wharton settles the frame story and shifts the point of view to the narrator. The narrator concludes, “They all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it’s a pity she did.” (Wharton 157). By ending the frame structure on such unexpected yet profound terms, Wharton touches upon the roots of realism by reflecting her many intentions. The uncertainty and dimension, as mentioned earlier, play an impactful role in the deduction of realism. The uncertainty of whether Mattie would live or not, and the dimensions involving their societal backlash, all contribute to Wharton’s final frontier of realism. Not to mention, Mattie’s conclusive “roundness” as a character, where she now faces the pinnacle of complexity alongside Ethan. From the prologue to the epilogue, the frame structure encapsulated all these elements and developed a sophisticated outlook on the story for the reader.
Additional structural successes of the novel lie in the light and dark imagery, which Edith Wharton uses as a stage light for certain scenes. In literal essence, stage lighting is the craft of light applying to live performance arts. The direction and color of the stage light implicate a certain image and atmosphere. Likewise, Wharton uses light and dark imagery to highlight certain aspects of the story, while also setting a mood. Simply, Ethan’s desires for Mattie are represented by light and warmth, while Zeena and reality are represented by darker imagery. During the night of Zeena’s absence, Ethan and Mattie’s shared moments represent the warmest of colors. As they converse, Ethan notices “the lamplight sparkling on her lips and teeth” (Wharton 79), and he watches the way her face changed “like a wheat-field under a summer breeze” (Wharton 79). Juxtaposing the colorful prominence, Ethan is also faced with darkness amidst Zeena’s sudden disapproval for Mattie. At this point, Ethan faces an all-time low which is reflected in the light imagery: “There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.” (Wharton 117). Ethan is hopeless and the light in him slowly fades into the darkness. The presence of light and darkness juxtapose various scenes, once again, adding dimension and realism. The tragic novel is pervaded with darkness, however, the occasional flashes of light add to the multi-dimensional platform of the story.
All the literary and structural device used by Wharton continue to epitomize Ethan Frome as a timeless novel. She used these techniques to touch upon the roots of humanity through the incorporation of realistic perpetuation: where realism is continuously preserved to represent a truthful story. She chose to incorporate a structure that would enhance the novel’s intricacy and development of her characters. Throughout Wharton’s development and structure, one is constantly reminded of reality and the nature of life.
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