I just finished reading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton for a school assignment and upon a second review of the introduction, I noticed something odd. First, I shall give some background.

The novel opens with the unnamed narrator's interactions with Ethan Frome. Page 4 contains the following quotation:

"He's looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that's twenty-four years ago come next February," Harmon threw out between reminiscent pauses.

The first chapter, which is unnumbered in my edition, comes to a close with:

It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.

The remainder of the novel is an account of Ethan's life prior to the aforementioned "smash-up".

The introduction of my edition, written by Edith Wharton herself, contains the following sentence:

The problem before me, as I saw in the first flash, was this: I had to deal with a subject of which the dramatic climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation later than the first acts of the tragedy.

This to me seems incorrect as the first acts of the piece precede the flashback to the climax, which occurred 24 years earlier and constitutes the majority of the piece. Am I correct in thinking that Mrs. Wharton intended to write "earlier" than "later"?


Wharton is correct if you locate the “first acts” and the “dramatic climax” in the same places as she does.

The question interprets “first acts of the tragedy” as “first in the text”, that is, those at the beginning of chapter I, in the ‘present’ of the novel. But Wharton means “first in historical sequence”, that is, the earliest actions in the flashback, the actions that are the cause of the tragedy. Similarly, the question says:

The remainder of the novel is an account of Ethan’s life prior to the aforementioned “smash-up”.

but this isn’t quite right. There is another section set in the ‘present’ of the novel, forming the last few pages of chapter IX (it starts, “The querulous drone ceased as I entered Frome’s kitchen”). It’s this section, and not the sled crash, that Wharton is describing as the “dramatic climax, or rather the anti-climax” of Ethan Frome, and indeed it occurs “a generation later” than the “first acts” in the flashback.

  • That's an interesting distinction I missed. Thank you. Mar 14 '19 at 0:32

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