Ethan Frome: Symbols & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

In this lesson, we'll analyze the symbols used by Edith Wharton in her classic novel 'Ethan Frome,' talk about how these symbols help to reveal the emotional states of the novel's major characters, and then test our knowledge with a quiz.

Symbols and Analysis

In Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton created characters who were terrible at expressing their feelings. This is a major difficulty for a book that centers its plot around the simmering passions of an extramarital affair! How are we, the readers, supposed to know how everyone is feeling, if they don't speak or act in accordance with their emotional states?

The answer is through symbolism. A symbol is one thing that stands for something else. Often, symbols are concrete images that represent non-material or abstract things. Wharton imbues her book with a number of key symbolic images and events that, when analyzed carefully, open our eyes to the characters' true feelings.

Barren Landscape

The setting of this novel - the town of Starkfield in barren, snowy New England - provides the perfect setup for Ethan Frome's problems. He is a man trapped in a loveless marriage with an ailing, bitter wife, Zeena. He might feel passion toward his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, but he cannot act on those passions. They are trapped inside of him, just as the greenery and beauty of nature is trapped beneath the blanket of snow covering Starkfield.

The narrator connects Ethan to the bleak landscape numerous times throughout the novel, such as when he observes that Ethan 'seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him bound fast below the surface …'

Imprisonment and Flight

Closely bound with the snowbound imagery are the numerous metaphors for imprisonment that describe Ethan. He is often shown as being symbolically tied up or otherwise trapped, such as when we're told that 'his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock' and when Ethan miserably tells Mattie that he's 'tied hand and foot' and can't act as he would like with her.

Mattie initially provides the contrast to Ethan's emotional imprisonment when she's described with various flight images. For example, her movements are akin to 'the flit of a bird in branches.' However, even though Mattie might seem like the path to freedom for Ethan, she's ultimately just as trapped as he is. Her lashes flutter like 'netted butterflies.' She 'twitters' like an injured bird after she and Ethan fail in their suicide attempt. The bird may be Mattie's symbol, but she is a caged bird.

Light and Dark

Yet another way that Wharton helps us as readers to understand Ethan's emotional state is to incorporate a number of light and dark images into his surroundings. We've already talked about Ethan's passions being symbolically buried under snow. Another way of thinking about this is that his desire for freedom and love is trapped in darkness and blackness.

Mattie seems like the path out of darkness, since she is often compared to light images. When we first see her in the book, she is dancing inside a church 'filled with broad bands of yellow light.' Ethan, on the other hand, stays outside and watches her from the shadows. Later in the novel, when Mattie tries to cheer Ethan up, 'the blackness lifted and light flooded Ethan's brain.' Even in those moments where Ethan and Mattie might act on their feelings for each other, however, they are inhibited by the dark. When they walk home at night, they have to 'strain ... their eyes to each other through the icy darkness.'

Just like with Mattie's flight imagery, her light imagery ultimately fails. This is made especially clear when Ethan and Mattie try to kill themselves, as the trees around them 'swathed them in blackness and silence.' There might be moments of light in this story, but they are fleeting and eventually lose out to the passionless dark.

Sexual Symbolism

It might seem strange to say that a book about people who almost never act on their feelings is full of sexuality, yet that is the case with Ethan Frome. Much like the characters' emotional states, the physicality of sexual desire can be found in Wharton's use of symbols. The town of Starkfield and its bleak imagery implies not only emotional repression, such as we discussed above, but also sexual repression. Ethan and Zeena have been married for seven years and have no children. The barrenness of the landscape therefore also suggests the barrenness of Zeena's womb.

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