Opening Lines: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

This is the blog where we dissect the opening sentences of popular works of fiction. Few people outside of the writing community know how much blood, sweat, and tears go into crafting the perfect Opening Line; and for that reason, I want to bring attention to the incredible work that a writer puts into these first few words. Today we will examine Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.


First, let’s look at her blurb:

Set against the frozen waste of a harsh New England winter, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a tale of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual tensions, published with an introduction and notes by Elizabeth Ammons in Penguin Classics. Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious, and hypochondriac wife, Zeenie. But when Zeenie’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. 

Now, let’s examine the Opening Line:

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

This is such a great opening line. I think it could be used in a variety of books. I picture it in a suspense novel, uttered by a detective. Or the horror genre, or comedy, or romance. It’s just that good.

Let’s break it down.

“I had the story…”

There’s a story. There’s always a story.

“…bit by bit, from various people…”

Okay, we’re piecing a story together. We don’t have the whole story, yet. But several people were either involved or witnessed whatever has happened.

“…and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. The narrator is collecting this story from these witnesses, but no one has the same story.

What is the story?

Why is it different? And more importantly, why does it keep changing?

If you want to find out what the story is, click the Barnes & Noble link.

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