Symbolism approach to interpretation has so many possibilities—so many paths to consider! An exciting approach to interpretation and criticism, comparable to hunting, finding the symbols, an object or image that, although interesting in its own right, stands for or suggests something larger and more complex—often an idea or a range of interrelated ideas, attitudes, and practices (Murfin & Ray 391), practiced by finding the repetition of colors throughout Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome became the adventure. Within the pages of the novel, repetition of colors reveal themselves and critic’s interpretations discussed. Symbolism
The color white can have many connotations. According to the Dictionary of Literary Symbols white can symbolize “sincerity” “candor” or “faithfulness”. White can also symbolize purity and perfectionism as well as the absolute (Mitford 106). Within the pages of Ethan Frome, Wharton uses white to describe the snow as “white earth” (Wharton 13) and referring to the hills as being “white curves against the sky” (Wharton 83) and “the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke” (Wharton 30). Perhaps leading to the purity and perfectionism of the snow that decorates the New England countryside, however winter often symbolizes the harshest of seasons, that is personified as an old man, frail, cold with white hair (Ferber). Wharton also uses the color white to describe the church and its steeple—“white glimmer of the church” (Wharton 88); “slim white steeple” (Wharton 13). In this case, I believe that the color does symbolize purity and faithfulness.
In the West, black represents the color of death, mourning, and the underworld. It also has associations with evil (Mitford 106). Black can also simply represent “bad” as well as death of purity and sincerity (Ferber). Wharton uses the color black in instances that describe the character’s surroundings or attributes. For example, “clumps of bushes made black stains on it [snow]” (Wharton 13). Interpreted as the tainting of the purity that the snow represents in the serene environment Wharton created in this instance. Wharton emphasizes the color black in many instances including the following examples: “They [Mattie and Ethan] walked in silence through the blackness” (Wharton 25). In this instance, the “blackness” represents the unknown. The two travel through the unknown because their future remains to be so but they decide to take the road together when Mattie could have just as easily taken Denis Eady up on his offer of having a ride home however she chooses Ethan. Another example within the story includes when Ethan followed his wife, Zenobia, to their bedroom after he returns from fetching Mattie at the town social, describing the room growing “perfectly black” (Wharton 30). In this instance, the blackness represents the doom that lays ahead for Ethan and his “pursuit” of Mattie. However, ambiguity can arise. For example, when Ethan and Zeena are having a disagreement, Zeena’s face “stood grimly out against the uncurtained pane, which had turned from gray to black” (Wharton 60). Can we determine if the blackness refers to the window pane or the expression on Zeena’s face? Because if the statement refers to Zeena’s expression, lends to the fact that Zeena has some “evil” intent when it comes Ethan and Mattie.
In some instances, “black” symbolizes death or impending death. For example “trees that looked black and brittle” (Wharton 74) and “black curtain of the Varnum spruces” (Wharton 88). Trees are known to represent life, however when Wharton describes them as being brittle, it has the opposite effect.
Throughout Ethan Frome, the color red attributes to Mattie Silver and the sun. Red represents the color of life—of blood, fire, passion, and war. Red also represents danger and warning as well as the color of hellfire and damnation. However, red also has possible holy implications for...