25 February 2013
Symbolism of Settings in Ethan Frome
As in any classic novel, each detail signifies something deeper than what is stated in plain text. In Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton represents the setting in symbolic ways that are essential to the central themes of loneliness, isolation, and the struggle between morality, desire, and finding the happiness in both. Ethan marries Zeena for convenience, not for love, and out of him believing he has found love for Mattie, the central conflict emerges. Does he remain with Zeena, the woman he has made vows to stay with through sickness and health, or does he pursue Mattie, the vibrant young woman who shows Ethan true happiness? Wharton uses different settings symbolically to portray Ethan’s feelings and the circumstances between each woman.
The Starkfield winter is most symbolic to the theme of the novel. Zeena is much like the winter- she is cold and bitter and is the reason Ethan cannot leave Starkfield. Ethan becomes distant due to the confinement and deals with each systematically. At the end of each oppressing winter, the people of Starkfield emerge from the siege “like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter” (Wharton 8), but Ethan cannot emerge from the grip of Zeena. The winter also symbolizes the accumulation of all the coldness, death and tragedy of the village, as well as Ethan’s own loneliness, confinement, and discontent.
Ethan and Zeena’s bedroom is an additional symbol for their marriage. Zeena presides over the bedroom as she does with their marriage. Their room is full of monochrome colors and darkness, like their marriage is dull and lifeless. Tension and unspoken words remain every day but “their thoughts [seem] to dart at each other like serpents shooting venom” (Wharton 98). Neither of them can spare enough emotion towards the other to even start a fight, except for one scene of open anger in their seven years together. Where most couples happily end their day...