In both The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton efforts the destinies of her characters in conjunction with the mysterious role of the rail system. Being a relatively recent confluence of industry and commerce, the railway also introduced the idea of traveling at will and at leisure, expanding not just infrastructure, but the understanding of what the possibilities of geography could hold for personal lives.
For Lily Bart, the railway is a conduit of fate.
Early on in the narrative, and throughout, she is whisked away to Bellomont, one of the two major nerve centers of Lily’s storyline, and the hub of all things determinism (in reference to her literal destiny). Similarly, the rail station (Grand Central) is the scene of her alternate destiny, the point where she rediscovers Selden. Because this rendezvous is cast at the start of the novel, Wharton underscores the notion that Lily’s elusive, parenthetical romance with him, and the possibility of what it could mean for her happiness, is indeed center stage, with all other “conduits” of her own storyline crafted carefully by Wharton, like rail lines diverting Lily away from her true and “intended” life of fulfillment. Consequently, the railway is transporting Lily Bart here and there, even against her will, everywhere but the glory of what could (and should) be, a diorama represented in the still and majestic “other world” of Grand Central Station.
Conversely, in Ethan Frome, the railway may be defined as a means of ineffectual rescue and escape – at once to temporarily alter the trajectory of Ethan’s fate, and again to serve as a pathway for its telling.
When Zeena travels to Bettsbridge to stay with her Aunt Martha Pierce, in search for a new diagnosis, Mattie and Ethan spend the night together, and in the absence of Zeena realize the notion of their romantic prospect. The railway thus exists as a demonstration of what must be subtracted from their situation in order for happiness to be achieved, but only temporarily. Though Zeena’s absence lends a grace period to the covert couple, the presence of the train only defies, even mocks the possibility that there is an attainable alternate destiny in store for Ethan outside the confines of his isolation. It serves as a dysfunctional escape route, even though it is Zeena who has literally done the escaping.
The railway also brings the narrator to Starkfield, laying ground for the telling of Ethan’s tale. Without the narrator’s arrival, the elliptical formation of Ethan’s personal story would be impossible, and because the narrator is required and able to travel by means of rail, the dissemination of the details of Ethan’s story is likewise able to be revealed to the reader. Yet the ability of the railway to aid in Ethan’s narrative formation lends no form of redemption: it no longer makes a difference if Ethan’s story is told because the agent of his potential rescue has come too late. It is a sort of dramatic non-sequitur, a contradictory conclusion that has already come with a price. Though the “crystal clearness” of the narrator’s perspective seems enough from the reader’s point of view, it isn’t enough for any of the characters – for Zeena, who has assumed the role of caretaker at the expense of her own sanity; for Ethan and Mattie, who have sacrificed their happiness; and even for the community, who still will have little, if any, idea of what actually happened in the “gaps” of Ethan’s narrative.
In an ironic sense, the railway serves as an impotent driving force that both determines and hinders the outcomes of Lily and Ethan’s eventual, and alternate, destinies. The railway is Wharton’s tantamount, iconic metaphor for a mechanism of change that, though failing to provide a means of escape for her characters, at the very least provides the reader with an understanding of her own deterministic vision.