Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome - BepalInfo

Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome


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Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors
used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Mattie’s Red Scarf and Red Ribbon

In the two key scenes when Mattie and Ethan are alone
together—outside the church after the dance and in the Frome house
on the evening of Zeena’s absence—Wharton emphasizes that Mattie wears
red. At the dance she wears a red scarf, and for the evening alone
she puts a red ribbon in her hair. Red is the color of blood, ruddiness,
good health, and vitality, all of which Mattie has in abundance,
and all of which Zeena lacks. In the oppressive white landscape
of Starkfield, red stands out, just as Mattie stands out in the
oppressive landscape of Ethan’s life. Red is also the color of transgression
and sin—the trademark color of the devil—especially in New England,
where in Puritan times adulterers were forced to wear red A’s on
their clothes (a punishment immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The
Scarlet Letter
). Thus, Mattie’s scarlet adornments also
symbolize her role as Ethan’s temptress toward moral transgression.

The Cat and the Pickle Dish

During their meal alone, and the evening that follows,
Ethan and Mattie share the house with the cat, which first breaks
Zeena’s pickle dish and then seats itself in Zeena’s rocking chair.
The animal serves as a symbol of Zeena’s tacit invisible presence
in the house, as a force that comes between Mattie and Ethan, and
reminds them of the wife’s existence. Meanwhile, the breaking of
the dish, Zeena’s favorite wedding present, symbolizes the disintegration
of the Frome marriage. Zeena’s anguish over the broken dish manifests her
deeper anguish over her fractured relationship.

The Final Sled Run

Normally, a sled rider forfeits a considerable amount
of control and submits to the forces of gravity and friction but
still maintains an ability to steer the sled; Ethan, however, forfeits
this ability as well on the final sled run. His decision to coast
in his final sled run symbolizes his inability to escape his dilemma
through action of any kind. The decision parallels Ethan’s agreement
to Mattie’s death wish, his conduct in his marriage, and his attitude
toward life in general: unable to face the consequences of any decision,
he lets external circumstances—other individuals, society, convention,
financial constraints—make his decisions for him. Mattie’s death
wish appears especially appealing to Ethan in that it entirely eliminates all
consequences for both of them, forever. Just as the rider of a sled relinquishes
control, so Ethan surrenders his destiny to the whims of Mattie
and of fate.

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Key Facts

More Help

  • Character List

  • Ethan Frome: Character Analysis

  • Important Quotations Explained

  • Themes

  • Review Quiz


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High School English Papers

This is my blog. It is simply a compilation of papers I have written.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Ethan Frome- symbols of isolation

Ethan Frome focuses on loneliness and isolation and their effects on an individual’s life. The main characters of this novel are emotionally estranged from everyone, sometimes even themselves. Loneliness is the main theme and often the impetus for the novel. Edith Wharton uses symbolism to further emphasize this theme of isolation.

The environment is a cause and a symbol of the repression of the character’s emotions. The name Starkfield reveals the empty, lonely lives they lead. The narrator quickly notices that there is a “deadness of the community” (7).Ethan, like the town, is gloomy and shabby. The village is isolated in a valley with few visitors and few interruptions to the monotony. Likewise, Ethan is trapped on his isolated farm with few visitors and few interruptions to the monotony. He is physically and emotionally trapped with his detached marriage, baron farm, and poverty. The Frome farm was so secluded that when an epidemic caused the townspeople horses to fall ill, Ethan’s alone did not get sick. “Harmon God suggested that Ethan Frome’s bay was still on his legs and that his owner might be glad to drive me over” (10). This entrapment is not as severe once Mattie Silver comes to the Frome household. However, once she is forced to leave the though of the previous isolation causes Ethan and Mattie to attempt suicide.

The setting of the novel is always bleak, snowy winter. Ethan is an extension of the sinister landscape. How the snow hides underlying life, Ethan too represses his underlying passion. The weather can be seen as a cause to why Zeena and Ethan became stuck in a terrible marriage. Zeena came to help Ethan with his ill mother. Once his mother died, fear of spending another cold, isolated winter alone causes Ethan to marry Zeena. “After the funeral when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay [. . .] He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter” (52). The marriage was one of desperation to escape the lonely winter. The harsh snowy climate is a hindrance to Ethan and the rest of the Starkfield society. They are constantly attacked by the fierce elements which prohibit them from socializing and leaves them suspended in isolation. The unrelenting winter becomes an oppressive force that helps us understand the comment that Ethan has “been in Starkfield too many winters” (5).

The graveyard is another symbol that reiterates the theme of loneliness in the novel. Ethan fears that he will suffer the same fate as his relatives: to never escape Starkfield. He pictures himself lying next to Zeena in the solitary graves. The graves terrify Ethan, not because he is afraid of dying, but because he is afraid of dying with a woman he does not love. “He wondered if, when their turn came, the same epitaph would be written over him and Zeena” (59). He envisions staying isolate in Starkville until his death. The graves represent his relatives that did not escape Starkville. Furthermore, they are buried in a private graveyard making them isolated from the rest of the community. The continuous isolation of Zeena and Ethan, even in death, terrifies Ethan.

Mattie is forced to leave by Zeena. The promise of the return to isolation strips Ethan of the will to live. He and Mattie attempt suicide because it would be less painful than the solitude. Isolation is the main them in Ethan Frome. Wharton displays this theme by making loneliness the driving force of many situations. Furthermore, she uses symbolism to accentuate the theme of isolation. The village, climate, and graveyard are examples of symbols of seclusion. Ethan Frome focuses on the effects estrangement has on the human soul.

posted by English Papers at 9:40 AM


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