Ethan Frome, the classic novel written by Edith Wharton contains a great amount of symbolism. The symbolism allows the characters to express themselves more clearly to the reader. It brings incidents and personalities together in meaning. The story’s symbolic events is what pulls characters together in time of need.
Starkfield Massachusetts is a boring cold farm town. People become very ill there from the terribly harsh winters. Winter greatly affects the actions and behaviors of the characters. No quote better describes the harsh winters of Starkfield, and the effect that it had on the townspeople, than the following:
When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed buy long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down o their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter (7).
Another truly symbolic point of the story is the Elm tree. The Elm tree symbolizes the end and the escape of two lives. Even though Mattie an Ethan were not killed by the sled crash, that was their purpose. The Elm tree also symbolizes strength and courage. After the crash, the Elm tree was still standing, while Ethan and Mattie were terribly injured. If Ethan was a stronger person he would not have crashed into the tree with Mattie. He would have had the strength to say “no” in the first place. Zeena who was once a hypochondriac, recovered, and now she takes care of Mattie and Ethan. “It was a miracle, considering how sick she was-but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her.” (131)
The incident with the red dish is the most symbolic event in the story. The red dish was a wedding present given to Zeena by one of her relatives. When the red dish broke, it symbolized the breaking of Ethan’s heart when he found out that Zeena wanted Mattie to leave. Zeena never used the dish, she kept it in the closet. One day when Zeena went to get her medicine, she discovered that dish was broken, and that someone attempted to glue it back together.
The Impact of Descriptive Writing in Wharton’s Ethan Frome
The descriptions in Ethan Frome are one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. The walk that Ethan and Mattie take in the snow at night is beautiful and if you have ever experienced a night walk on a country road with stars and the moon lighting the way, reading the description of this one will bring memories of it back:
The night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle under their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.
Here is another example of Wharton’s precision of description. It is the scene in which Ethan watches Mattie and Eady from a distance, not knowing if she will go with him in his vehicle:
By this time they had passed beyond Frome’s earshot and he could only follow the shadowy pantomime of their silhouettes as they continued to move along the crest of the slope above him. He saw Eady, after a moment, jump from the cutter and go toward the girl with the reins over one arm. The other he tried to slip through hers; but she eluded him nimbly, and Frome’s heart, which had swung out over a black void, trembled back to safety.
The contrast between Zeena and Mattie is most extreme! Zeena is fully undesirable and Mattie is a veritable angel:
He and Zeena had not exchanged a word after the door of their room had closed on them. She had measured out some drops from a medicine-bottle on a chair by the bed and, after swallowing them, and wrapping her head in a piece of yellow flannel, had lain down with her face turned away. Ethan undressed hurriedly and blew out the light so that he should not see her when he took his place at her side. As he lay there he could hear Mattie moving about in her room, and her candle, sending its small ray across the landing, drew a scarcely perceptible line of light under his door.