Symbolism in Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton Essay

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  4
Wordcount:  921 Words
Date:  2022-03-09

The Ethan Frome novel by Edith Wharton is full of different symbols that tell different stories about the theme of the story, the motive behind every action and the characters involved in the entire novel. The first symbol is the red dish. When Ethan and Zeena got married, among the wedding gifts given to them by friends and family was a red dish. Later on in the story, this same present is broken during a romantic dinner that Ethan had with another woman, Mattie. Zeena sees the shattering of the dish as a sign of the end of her marriage with Ethan. It also means that something terrible will happen between her husband and the woman he had a love affair with. In the story, Zeena picked up every piece of the broken glass and carried it out of the room as if she as moving a dead body, (Wharton 43). It indicates that this is a bad sign of death and makes the reader think that a person might die soon. This red dish, however, does not only symbolize death; the fact that it is red makes it essential to consider the significance of its color. Red is most often associated with seduction, love, heat, passion, desire, and lust. Apart from this it also symbolizes blood, a sign of danger, accidents, and a warning alarm. Throughout the story, this red color is described in several things, for instance, the red scar that Ethan has, his car, Mattie's cherry-colored scarf, the sun and Mattie's crimson ribbon. All of these are signs of the anxieties that surround the marriage, adultery, passion, and sexuality in the novel. The character's public and private forms of shame and guilt combined with the emotions connected to that are all paced in color red and most specifically, the red scar that Ethan carries with him on his forehead.

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The second symbol is found in Ethan's farm which is the mill. This is a machine used by people to processes wood for various uses such as building houses and constructing farm machines. The mill stands in harsh opposition to the natural beauty that surrounds it. From the story, Ethan's love for nature is made clear, and this makes it unlikely for one to associate him with operating a mill. This would probably explain the unsuccessful attempts of him trying to succeed in managing it, (Wharton 23). There is an expression of deep environmental anxiety in the act where Ethan, who makes a living by cutting down trees and building wood out of it, tries to kill his lover and himself by colliding with a tree.

The railroad is another symbol used in the novel as a sign of evolution, modernity, and transformation. These characters belong to the early 20th century; they are therefore trying to move away from the rural life and the agricultural society towards an urban and industrial life setting. The railroad shows the reader of the lack of progress the characters are faced with in addition to the backward slide that is making them sink deeper into economic despairs. As much as the train can now transport people and goods from the rural areas to large cities and towns, Ethan cannot be able to sell his wood, his farm, and his sawmill. If he cannot sell these things, then it means he has no way of saving enough money to afford him an urban life, (Wharton 23). This is because there are no people that stop at Starkfield to do business, visit or even buy commodities and properties. He is therefore stuck, and this technology has left him behind in its dust while everyone else is moving forward.

Lastly is the silence that looms around Ethan. He has a sincere desire always to have laughter and sound around him, but in turn, he only gets silence. Ever since his mother was incapable of talking, Ethan developed the longing of hearing any noise from anyone. The moment he heard Zeena's sound, he decided to marry her because of this. However, it is ironical that Zeena too loses her voice. He is again drawn back in the misery he was once in. This character is described as being the strong and silent type. It seems like only Mattie can be able to save him from this despair. He is granted his wish and desire of freeing his voice, but again, there is a bitter twist to this. He had wished to have a house full of sweet sound and noise, but the kind of noise he received from Mattie was one that made him wish she could keep quite like everyone else, (Wharton 11). He lived in a house that was full of misunderstandings, angry shouting, and quarrels from Mattie.

The novel contains symbols that indicate despair and death. However, it is not the literal death of a person, but the death of every dream and future hopes that any of the characters had in mind. All of the things Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie ever wished for and dreamt of achieving are shattered, and they are left with no hope but only desolation. The overall lesson from the novel is that people should never assume responsibilities to which they cannot resign themselves. In Ethan's moment of weakness, he asks Zeena, who was just a nurse taking care of his mother, for a hand in marriage. A person has to live his or her life realistically to extend their love to other people.

Works Cited

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome - with Audio, 2014.

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