In a short essay on Ethan Frome over at Interpolations, Kevin Neilson quotes two passages by the novel’s narrator, who says about himself only that he has “been sent by my employers on a job connected with the big power-house at Corbury Junction,” although he drops the interesting clue that he has been reading a “volume of popular science—I think it was on some recent discoveries in bio-chemistry. . . .” From this Neilson deduces that he is an “engineer, likely a manager or a supervisor. . . .” And on the strength of this deduction, Neilson objects to the prose that Edith Wharton grants to him:
Now, I am not exactly sure what Neilson is objecting to here. That putting such prose into the mouth of such a man is a sin against authenticity, fatally compromising the novel’s realism? That it is impossible, destroying the novel’s tragic effect? Merely implausible, making the novel a clumsy vehicle for carrying the reader away?
Two things, at all events, that I don’t think Neilson allows for. Ethan Frome was published in 1911, thirty years after electricity first began to be generated at central stations. If the history of the Boston Edison Company is any indication, the spread and use of electrical power in Massachusetts (the setting of the book) was only becoming widespread around the time that Wharton wrote. The cost of electricity per kilowatt hour dropped by half in the city between 1886 and 1909, according to Boston Edison. The price decrease was the result of engineering improvements and increased demand.
In short, Wharton attaches her narrator to “the big power-house at Corbury Junction” in order to fix the novel’s framing story firmly in the present. An electrical engineer who had risen to have become a manager or supervisor by 1909–’11 would have had to graduate from college around, say, the turn of the century. As historians of the American university can tell you, even engineering students in the late nineteenth century received an education that would strike current engineering students as excessively literary and humanistic. Even if they did not intend to pursue one of the “learned professions,” young engineers were expected, as university graduates, to be liberally educated. A man of Wharton’s narrator’s background would be far more articulate and even poetic than his counterpart today. Neilson does not account for this historical difference.
What is more, his occupation—his interest in popular science—is intended to defamiliarize the narrator, to make him a visitor from a different world and time, almost exactly like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. The narrator’s distance from events is designed to give Ethan Frome’s story the quality of strangeness, even uncanniness. Once the frame is set by arranging to have the story told to an up-to-date visitor, it is dispensed with, and the question of authenticity or plausibility is no longer relevant (the question of possibility is another matter entirely). The frame is merely a device for generating the fiction.