August 19, 2015
I want to talk about voice in Edith Wharton’s the novella “Ethan Frome” and in Elizabeth Strout’s novel The Burgess Boys.
The writer’s voice is not so intangible. We can identify it as poetic (Hawthorne), rhapsodic (Melville), minimalist (Hemingway), elaborate (Henry James), elegant (Edith Wharton), romantic (Fitizgerald), smart-alec tough ( Raymond Chandler), common man (Strout) . Some writers experiment and change their voice, depending on the material (Faulkner). Even if we can’t attach an adequate descriptive word to voice, we know it when we read it. And when it detours.
Edith Wharton wrote superbly in House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence (elegant, dense) about the morality and culture of upper class society. But her “Ethan Frome” is a different animal. Even the subject matter astounds me: a poor framer trapped in his life. The voice in Frome is totally different from her elegant and elaborate style. Frome is sparse, even brutal. I can’t even imagine Edith Wharton spending time enough in such a poverty-stricken, barren farm area to write accurately about it. I believe she came upon this extraordinary tale and felt the challenge. She met it, and made a classic of it with her sound and interesting structure— and voice.
An example of a voice switch that occurred INSIDE a novel came with Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. The Prologue was a dialog between a mother & daughter. It was written in a voice gorgeous, quiet, personal, moving— full of atmosphere. But when chapter I actually begins with new characters, the voice is blunt, describing an everyday world in an everyday voice. The novel continues and ends in this voice. Strout won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge with its rock-solid everyday voice. Then why, in BBoys did she write a Prologue in a different voice to which she never returned? What kind of struc ture is that? That Prologue promised an entirely different novel; I wanted THAT novel; it was much more my kind of novel to read and to write. It was in my voice. Was she playing safe, staying with her familiar voice? Will she experiment with the new voice in the future? Maybe, believe it or not, she lost the Epilogue. Or worse still, her editor advised her against including it and Strout compromised by keeping the Prologue. Anyone reading this novel will ponder two voices.