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 with Ethan.
As Zeena’s chronic illness progressed, she suggested that her cousin, Mattie Silver, come to Starkfield to assist her. Even though the frozen, depressing, winter symbolizes Ethan and Zeena, light, warmth and happiness symbolizes Mattie. Even her name “Silver” (Wharton, 117 – 118) insinuates brightness. For example, when Ethan first saw Mattie she was dancing in the brightly lit hall, while he was waiting for her outside in the darkness and coldness of Starkfield. Moreover, another example is when he first met her and wished he could “stand there with her all night in the blackness” (Wharton, 10 – 26) because of her symbols of freedom, liveliness, joyfulness and delicateness, which are all the exact opposite of Starkfield and his wife. Likewise, Edith explained how he would lay down listening to Mattie moving in her room and looking to see the light in her candle, which would be “sending its small ray across the landing”, and drawing “a scarcely perceptible line of light under his door,” ( Wharton, 117-118) therefore, “he kept his eyes fixed on the light till it vanished.” (Wharton, 117-118) This symbolized how desperate Ethan was for her light and positive energy.
Another important symbol used by Wharton in Ethan Frome is to describe Mattie is the color red. Red is considered the color of life and vitality. Mattie wore red on the two occasions when Ethan and she were alone without Zeena. When Mattie is at the dance she wore a red scarf, and when Zeena is out of town to visit the doctor, Mattie wears a red puts a red scarf on her hair for dinner. (Buckley) This symbolizes Mattie’s love and attraction to Ethan. Moreover, it also symbolizes her freshness of youth and warmth deriving from Mattie’s body that Ethan sees and is attracted to. Ethan felt that “the coming to his house of hopeful young life was like the lightning of a fire on a cold hearth”, (Wharton, 119-140) which meant she brought light to his life and environment. (Buckley)
In addition, Edith also later describes how “Mattie came forward, unwinding her wraps, the colour of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks”, (Wharton, 119-140) which also explains and symbolizes why Ethan is attracted to Mattie and is the platform of the plot of the story. It really enhances the point that Ethan is desperate for freedom and love because he is stuck in a loveless marriage. Additionally, it insinuates how Mattie’s accessories literally standout against the environment of Starkfield, which is depressing and has a gloomy sense of whiteness. (Buckley)
Moreover, Wharton uses the color red to symbolize sexual sin. (Novelguide Team) The color red is frequently related to desire, love, seduction, sin, passion, heat, and lust. One item that one would describe as red is the pickle dish. As stated before, the pickle dish was a very prized possession to Zeena and symbolized the emptiness of the marriage Zeena and Ethan shared. Therefore, when Mattie touches it while Zeena is away at the doctor’s for a day, it symbolized her disloyalty of Zeena and Ethan’s marriage. However, even though Zeena is not physically present, her spirit is seen through the cat, which knocks over the pickle dish. The cat symbolizes a barrier between Mattie and Ethan. For example, when the cat sits in a chair between Mattie and Ethan during their dinner, and when it sits in the rocking chair putting it in motion as if Zeena herself were in it herself, but most importantly the cat breaks the pickle dish. The breaking of it symbolizes how Ethan feels about how Mattie and his dinner went. He felt that the breakage of the dish reflected the shattering of Zeena and his twilight together. Even though one might not blame Mattie for her actions because of the nature of Ethan’s marriage, it is still considered wrong in society. (Buckley) For example, Ethan’s gash instantaneously can remind one of a novel called The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is a story about a woman that is forced to wear a red letter "A" on her chest to show that she has committed adultery. (Shmoop Editorial Team) Similarly, in Ethan Frome, Ethan is branded with a red mark, which symbolizes anxieties surrounding marriage, passion, adultery, sexuality and public and private forms of shame and related emotions. However, the only difference is that the symbol is placed on Ethan Frome’s forehead instead of chest. (Buckley)
Furthermore, the breaking of the pickle dish symbolizes the beginning of the end of Ethan’s marriage with Zeena. Likewise, when Zeena discovered the shattered dish, she carries it as if it were a “dead body,” (Wharton, 140-210) which means she has realized that her marriage is over, and ironically she does nothing to help improve it. She does not end it or try to develop and repair her relationship with Ethan, so instead she prefers to grieve over a shattered object. In which one can interpret her as mentally ill or extremely careless because of her actions.
Soon after Zeena’s grieving moment and observation of Ethan and Mattie’s relationship, she finally decides that she wants Zeena to return home, which puts Ethan in a situation where he must decide on his morals or desires. As a result of, it leaves Ethan destitute and longing to run away with Mattie, but unfortunately he has no money. (Bernard, 178-84) Therefore, instead of Ethan confessing his true feelings about his marriage with Zeena and taking charge, he agrees to take Mattie to the train station, so that o their way they can see all of the places they enjoyed each other’s company. When they arrive, Mattie suggests that they should sleigh into the elm tree and commit suicide, rather than be without each other. (Novelguide Team)
The reason why she chose the elm tree is because it symbolized their passionate and unlawful relationship. By them crashing into it, it will symbolize whether either of them have the courage to actually pursue the dishonest relationship. Therefore, the agreement to commit suicide becomes a symbol of their only definite decision they make to act on their feelings, which symbolizes the growth of Ethan’s manhood. However, one can assume that it is ironic that Mattie came up with the solution and Ethan just followed, which totally contradicts the symbolism stated earlier. The final irony is when they survive the crash and cripples them, which symbolizes the “unmanning” (Novelguide Team) of Ethan and the stripping of Mattie’s chance of any independence. This symbolizes darkness, life – in - death and hell on earth (Bernard, 178-84) because Ethan is now stuck with hi horrible wife, Zeena and Mattie, who was once a loving, bright, charming girl, who is now bedridden and “querulous with pain.” Basically, they are all living out “their death in the kitchen of the desolate Frome farm—a perpetuity of suffering memorializes a moment of passion. It is terrible to contemplate, it is unforgettable, but the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it.”(Thrilling)
Overall, there is an overabundance of symbolism in Ethan Frome, which helps readers understand the novel and its contents more. The author did an unusually good job in subtly placing symbols such as a pickle dish and a cat. These seemingly small objects make the story what it is and help show the bigger picture of the poverty stricken, dreary, loveless life of Ethan Frome. (Wharton)
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