Ethan Frome: Hidden meanings
Ethan Frome is the story of a family caught in a deep-rooted domestic struggle. Ethan Frome is married to his first love Zeena, who becomes chronically ill over their long marriage. Due to his wife’s condition, they took the services of Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver. Mattie seems to be everything that Zeena is not, youthful, energetic, and healthy. Over time Ethan believes that he loves Mattie and wants to leave his wife for her. He struggles with his obligations toward Zeena and his growing love for Mattie. After Zeena discovers their feelings toward each other, she tries to send Mattie away. In an effort to stay together, Ethan and Mattie try to kill themselves by crashing into the elm that they talked about so many times. Instead, Mattie becomes severely injured and paralyzed. The woman that was everything that Zeena was not became the exactly the same as her. In Ethan Frome, the author communicates meanings in this story through various symbols. One of the most significant symbols used in this story is the very setting itself.
A symbol is a person, object, or event that suggests more than its literal meaning. Symbols can be very useful in shedding light on a story, clarifying meaning that can’t be expressed with words. It may be hard to notice symbols at first, but while reflecting on the story or reading it a second time, the symbol is like a key that fits perfectly into a lock. The reason that symbols work so well is that we can associate something with a particular object. For example, a red rose symbolizes love and passion, and if there were red roses in a story we may associate that part of the story with love. Although many symbols can have simple meanings, such as a red rose, many have more complex meanings and require a careful reading to figure out its meaning.
The first symbol that I noticed in Ethan Frome is the setting. It plays an important role in this story. The author spends much of the first few chapters describing the scene in a New England town Starkfield. When I think of a town called Starkfield, a gloomy, barren place with nothing that can grow comes to mind. As the author continues to describe this town, it just reinforces what I had originally thought. In the beginning of the story, while describing why Ethan looked the way he did, Harmon said “guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away”(Wharton 2). This does not give the impression that this is an enjoyable or a healthy place to live. The winters seem so ruthless in this story that the narrator describes them as “ this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold and he could understand why Starkfeild emerged from its six months siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter”(Wharton 3). Starkfeild seems like a very oppressive place to live. It is understandable why ‘the smart ones get away’.
Deeper into the story, as the narrator gets to know Ethan, we get a description of Ethan’s house, which is very symbolic of the story as well. The narrator describes the house as “one of those lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier”(Wharton 7). The house had a stunted look to it due to the absence of the “L”, a typical feature on New England farmhouses, which is an attachment that connects the house to the woodshed and cow-barn (Wharton 8). The “L” is symbolic of heart of the house, the chief source of warmth and nourishment. The absence of this “L” suggests that the livelihood of this household is nonexistent. Ethan’s family doesn’t have what many families have, warmth, love, and children. The Frome family lacks the same strength and connectedness that is conveyed by the absence of this “L”.
When Zeena goes out of town for medical treatment, Ethan and Mattie are alone together in the house for the night. The author uses this scene to introduce two other symbols that have importance in the story. The first is the housecat, which is symbolic of Zeena’s presence even while she is away. While the two of them were eating supper, the cat jumps in between them in Zeena’s empty chair. When their hands met on the milk jug, the cat knocked over a pickle dish that was on the table. Mattie begins to cry because Zeena had forbidden her to use that dish. This ended whatever romantic they may have pursued. After supper, as Ethan tried to find ways to be closer to Mattie, “the cat, who had been a puzzled observer of these unusual events, jumped up into Zeena’s chair, rolled into a ball, and lay watching them with narrow eyes” (Wharton 37). Attempting to capture a mouse, the cat jumped off the chair and it began to rock, reminding them that Zeena will be rocking in it shortly. It seems as if Zeena shows more affection to the cat than Ethan
Another symbol with great significance in this scene is the pickle dish mentioned before. It was a wedding gift that Zeena cherishes although she keeps it stored away in the china-closet and never uses it. The dish is red, which is a color symbolic of love and passion. Just as the dish has been stored away in a closet for many years, so has Ethan and Zeena’s marriage. This dish represents their marriage, since all of the love and passion has been “stored” away for many years. Although Zeena has forbidden Mattie to touch it, she takes it out to serve supper. The dish ends up being shattered during their supper by the cat. This is very symbolic of Ethan and Zeena’s marriage, which has also been shattered after Mattie came in contact with it.
As you can see with Ethan Frome, symbols have great significance in literature. Symbolism is a great tool for the author to get across meanings that are difficult to express with words. The use of symbols in a story is a clever way to give the story more depth. It may not be easy to notice symbols the first time reading a story, but in a second or third reading they become more noticeable and give more insight into the story. Symbols don’t only occur in literature, they also occur in everyday life. They may even shape your opinion without you even realizing it, for example if a guy wears black all the time, people may think that he’s dark and secretive, whether in reading a story or in real life.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Dover Publications,Inc. 1991