Although Ethan Frome is most accurately classified as a work of Naturalist literature, the novel’s poetic and mournful style bears a strong resemblance to the Romantic and Gothic novels that inspired it.
The narrative form of Ethan Frome is similar to that of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a Gothic novel that also uses a frame story to introduce the main narrative and deals with themes of madness and illicit desire. Wharton’s lush descriptions of nature and extensive use of figurative language in Ethan Frome, meanwhile, are reminiscent of works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was a pillar of the Romantic movement.
Throughout Ethan Frome, Wharton uses a variety of different stylistic techniques to convey a sense of hopelessness and mournful beauty. Although the novel is quite short, with the main plot unfolding over the course of just a few days, the pace is very slow at times. This lethargic pace reflects the monotonous lives of the novel’s characters, who struggle to maintain hope and sanity during the seemingly endless Starkfield winters. The pace also contributes to a sense of foreboding and tension, which, combined with Wharton’s use of a frame story, makes the novel’s tragic conclusion seem inevitable. Characters in Ethan Frome often have little control over their own lives, which are instead influenced by a combination of external factors. This focus on determinism seems to reject the Romantic belief in the power of the individual, cementing Ethan Frome as a work of Naturalism.
Wharton’s use of descriptive visual imagery and figurative language, particularly her detailed descriptions of nature, grants Ethan Frome a poetic, somewhat Romantic style. But while Romantic authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne focused on the sublime beauty of the natural world and viewed it as a reflection of the human psyche, Wharton portrays nature as a harsh external force that has the power to shape human affairs while remaining indifferent to them.