Advantages of the Close Third Person Point of View: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

This is now the third post I’ve done on Edith Wharton. I didn’t set out to become the president of the Wharton fan club, but you guys: she’s just so damn good! In other posts I’ve talked about her skill with narrative structure and world-building. In this gorgeous, intensely page-turning novella— which I’d never read before—what I noticed most had to do with point of view, and in particular the deft way she uses close third person to unfold her story in a way that is irresistible and nearly impossible to put down.

The story works in large part because it paints a clear, vivid scene and refracts it through the consciousness of an acutely observant, emotionally intense protagonist, thereby immersing you in the story-world in ways that are, as I've written elsewhere, compulsive and impossible to resist:

“The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.”

Wharton is free to describe the scene so fulsomely and with such lyricism, in part, because in close third she feels no obligation to write in the “voice” of her laconic narrator. In first person narration, the voice of the narrator has in some way to match the voice of the character. This would have been hard to do, as Ethan Frome’s voice, when he does talk, is clipped and colloquial in a way that feels very true to rural New England culture, limited throughout the story to laconic observations such as this:

“‘Oh, Ned ain’t much at steering. I guess I can take you down all right!’ he said disdainfully.”

Even if a first-person narrative voice didn’t exactly match the bitten-off exclamations of “spoken” Ethan, it would have been hard to credit his direct thoughts taking on the soaring, descriptive lyricism of Wharton’s implied narrator. With close third, the reader’s subconscious expectation is that the narration will partake of the “essence” of the POV character, without having to actually capture or mimic that character’s “voice.” So we get a sense of Ethan’s inner landscape—among other things he is an acute, melancholy, and poetic observer of nature—without having to wonder about why his thoughts are so different than his speech:

“Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.”

At the center of the novella is a bittersweet, highly affecting love story. Close third gives Wharton the ability to portray the development and efflorescence of Ethan’s feelings for Mattie with the refracted intensity of lived experience:

“It was one of those days when the glitter of winter shines through a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie’s presence, and there was hardly a branch against the sky or a tangle of brambles on the bank in which some bright shred of memory was not caught. Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once.” 

“She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun.”

Note that these lyrical visions of Ethan’s emotionally refracted inner landscape would have been far too poetic to be transmitted to the reader using Ethan’s first-person voice. But we’re also privy, as we would be in first person, to his most private internal agony:

“It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock. Twice he opened his lips to speak to Mattie and found no breath.”

Because the entire story (minus the frames at the beginning and end) is written in rigorous close third, there’s no expectation that we’ll get the perspective of other characters in the story. And much of the suspense has to do with the fact that we think we know, but are not quite sure about what the other characters are feeling:

“He saw the rise in colour in Mattie’s averted cheek, and the quick lifting of Zeena’s head.”

“The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.”

Imagine how different these effects would be if the story were written in the omniscient point of view, even limited omniscience. We would know what the other characters were feeling, and this would eliminate much of the uncertainty, diluting the suspense and most likely blunting the overall impact of the story, which depends on an intense scrutiny of the gradually expanding consciousness of a single individual.

The story is told in the past tense, but with close third there is no real question about where the narrator herself stands in time, as there always is with first person. Because of this the terrible, suspenseful, tragic story can unfold without any expectation of a retrospective vision, such as “if only I’d known what was going to happen, I would have . . . ”

Here’s an example, from the climactic scene:

“As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed her arms tighter, and her blood seemed to be in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved a little under them. He slanted his body to keep it headed for the elm . . . ”

With first person, we would either have had to bear the awkwardness of present tense, or we would have expected the retrospective voice to intrude, letting us know how and why this was going to be such a pivotal event in his life—and if we didn’t hear any of that retrospective voice, we probably would have wondered why it was absent at such an important moment in the story.

My take-homes:

Close third is a better choice than first person or omniscient if:

You want to describe the setting fulsomely and lyrically, and your character is not a poet or a painter.

You want the focus to be on the character’s essence, rather than the sound of his voice. 

The story turns on the misconceptions or limited perspective of the main character, and/or the suspense of not knowing what the other characters in the story are thinking.

You want the story to unfold moment-to-moment, without having to address either the presence or absence the retrospective view—i.e., you wish to have a story where the narrator’s stance in time is indefinite. In other words, if you wish to rely on suspense or mystery more than dramatic irony as a page-turning mechanism.