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John Henry Twachtman's 'Snowbound' - used for the cover on an earlier Penguin edition

John Henry Twachtman’s ‘Snowbound’ – used for the cover on an earlier Penguin edition of  ‘Ethan Frome’

 

In the prologue of Ethan Frome, the narrator describes the winters of the New England town of Starkfield (a fictional town), at first naively supposing that the cold weather – ‘the crystal clearness’ of the atmosphere in early winter – would have a stimulating effect on its residents:

One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield.

To ‘quicken the blood’ is an expression that means to make you feel more excited, ready or alive, as if your heart is beating faster in excitement. The narrator’s expectation is disappointed by ‘the sluggish pulse of Starksfield’, which could mean the collected pulses of the townsfolk or the general atmosphere of the place. To explain this effect on the town, Wharton describes the months of winter in terms of a military siege:

When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.

Winter, or late winter anyway, is described as if it is an army besieging the town. The snows of February are described as ‘white tents’ around the village, conjuring to mind the heaps of snow over hills, hillocks and bushes. This metaphor is extended then with March described as the cavalry – the image of horsed men relentlessly rushing forward fitting very well a freezing wind rushing on a town. Wharton captures the enervating effect this has on the townsfolk with the apt image of a starved garrison surrendering. The passage is an extended metaphor. Metaphors are not difficult, but effective metaphors, those that capture something vital about the scene or situation described, are more difficult; effective extended metaphors, because every part must capture something vital, require real skill. Wharton has this is droves, of course. She takes the extended metaphor into the next sentence:

Twenty years earlier the means of resistance must have been far fewer, and the enemy in charge of all the lines of access between the beleaguered villages

Wharton is referring to the differences that had occurred between the part of the story in which the narrator comes to Starkfield, the early Twentieth Century, and the late Nineteenth Century when the main events of Ethan Frome’s story took place. A good metaphor will capture an aspect of the situation that even a literal telling would not. The ‘siege’ extended metaphor gives us a deeper sense of the community’s isolation and resilience than if Wharton had merely written ‘Twenty years earlier transport between towns was much more limited and it   very difficult to carry post and goods to remoter areas during snowy winters.’ I wondered if Wharton’s experiences in the First World War in France had equipped her with such extensive military vocabulary, but she actually wrote this a few years before hand. Perhaps she grew up reading Civil War histories, or War and Peace! It shows anyway, that a good extended metaphor also requires no little knowledge of the subject you’re using as a metaphor.

 

Challenge

Describe a period of harsh or extreme weather. Use an extended metaphor and comment on various aspects of the weather and people’s response to it. This isn’t easy, but have a go!

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