Symbolism in Ethan from

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Ruqiyah Mukarram
December 3, 2012
AP Lit Composition
The Symbolism in Ethan Frome

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Where there is a marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.” (Benjamin) Marriage is the foundation for social order because it restrains us from self centeredness and self indulgence. However, with the wrong significant other, one can find themselves on the path to adultery. (Craven) Ethan Frome is a story of a family caught in a deeply rooted domestic struggle. In the novel, the main character Ethan is caught in a love triangle between his wife Zeena, and his maid Mattie. There are numerous themes and conflicts throughout the context. However, within the themes of weakness, isolation, poverty, loves and death, the author brings in five different symbols. A symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something else, esp. a material object representing something abstract. (Symbolling) Moreover, they allow the characters to articulate their emotions more clearly to the reader, which is very useful in bringing light to the story, and it illuminates the meaning that cannot be expressed in words. For example, a dark room symbolizes darkness, depression, gloominess, and hopelessness; therefore we would link that part of the story with darkness. Although, some symbols are easy to define, others require more research and reading. Likewise, through reading Ethan Frome, the color red, pickle dish, cat, setting, and light and darkness all highlight the major conflicts that arise throughout the context. (Wharton)

The novel takes place in the cold, gloomy town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Its weather, which is winter, is a repeated symbol throughout the novel. Edith uses it to symbolize darkness, which shapes Ethan and the people in Starkfield’s behaviors and actions. (James) For example, winter is mentioned in the introductory when the author states “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” which indicates that the cold weather has had a negative effect on Ethan. In the novel he is described as “bleak” and “stiffened”, (Wharton, 10-26)

As if he was a part of the winter. Also because of the winter’s harsh temperatures, the village has “deserted streets”, “pure and frosty darkness” (Wharton, 10-26) and is described as an “exhausted receiver”, (Wharton, 10-26)which created a mood for bitterness, misery, hardship and crudity that is present throughout the story. Moreover, the winter also represents Ethan’s life and his marriage to Zeena.

After the death of his father and during the sickness of his mother, his cousin Zeena comes to aid his mother. However, after her death, he decided to marry her only because he didn’t want to spend a winter alone in the depressing silent, cold farmhouse. (James) As the marriage progressed, he planned to move to a larger city and pursue his goal of becoming an engineer. Unfortunately, Zeena becomes ill and silent emotionally, and physically, which created a blockage on their marriage. This blockage destroyed their love and made them become acrid towards each other. Like the barren winter, he is a part of a childless, depressing never ending marriage with a controlling wife. (James) Consequently, Ethan became a part of a “mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface”, (Wharton, 10 – 26) which basically symbolizes Ethan’s silences and lack of strength, in that he is incapable of standing up to his wife, speaking his mind or acting on his feelings. Another symbol of the barrenness of their marriage is the pickle dish. The pickle dish was Zeena’s most esteemed possession. Even though it was given to her on her wedding day, she makes sure Ethan and no one else can use it. She does this by placing it on the top self of the china cabinet, and the fact that it is red symbolizes the sexual and emotional emptiness of her marriage...
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