What are the elements of literature in Ethan Frome?

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is rife with literary elements. Most salient of all is the element of irony, which permeates the entire novel. Aside from situational irony, we can also include metaphor, symbolism, and figurative language.

It would take many pages of written analysis to list all...

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is rife with literary elements. Most salient of all is the element of irony, which permeates the entire novel. Aside from situational irony, we can also include metaphor, symbolism, and figurative language.

It would take many pages of written analysis to list all the text evidence in the novel that contains literary elements, so let us focus on the ones that stand out the most.

Symbolism

We start with the name of the town where the Fromes reside, Starkfield. The place itself is also stark, which means "bare and severe in appearance." This is symbolic of everything surrounding Ethan's life, which happens to have equally negative qualities: his wife is isolating and quiet, he barely makes any money, his land is not productive, and his life in general seems not to have any kind of trajectory.

Another example of symbolism is the graves of Frome's ancestors being visible to Ethan at all times. They are a constant reminder that his family remained in the bare land of Starkfield and died there, too. This symbol is an ominous portent for Ethan, who secretly wishes his life was different and less alienating. Moreover, the graves read:

SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE,
WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE
FOR FIFTY YEARS.

This message is a constant reminder of what Ethan's life will become: imagine his presumable future of living for fifty years with Zeena in a loveless marriage, with no money with which to entertain your life, and then dying and being buried together.

The very telling scene with the red pickle dish is completely symbolic of the state of the Frome marriage. Zeena was protective of the dish because that is the last thing that remained from the day she got married. The fact that Mattie took the dish to use it as she wanted tells of her intention of also taking another thing that "belongs" to Zeena: Ethan himself.

Moreover, it is because of Ethan and Mattie's flirtation that the pickle dish ends up smashed on the floor. With its destruction, the very last vestige of better days that Zeena had left was crushed. It even says in the novel that Zeena picked up the pieces and took them to the trash as if she were carrying "a dead body."

Irony

An example of irony is the fact that Ethan and Mattie try to kill themselves in a suicidal pact since they cannot spend their lives together as they wish. However, the plan failed miserably. They hit a tree with a sleigh. Because of their inability to die, they suffer all the consequences of their terrible accident while being alive. They end up living together while crippled. Zeena becomes their caregiver, and all parties are in worse circumstances than before.

Descriptive and Figurative Language

Along with symbolism and irony, the novel is peppered with descriptive and figurative language that attempts to illustrate to the reader exactly how demoralizing and sad Ethan's circumstances are.

One example is the way Wharton uses metaphor to describe Ethan:

He was a prisoner for life

Metaphor is also used to describe the time when Ethan's mother was dying and Zeena became as a house nurse. This time in his life is described as a "long imprisonment" combined with a "mortal silence."

Therefore, there are elements of literature all over the novel. They are more evident when Wharton describes characters and settings. They include metaphor, similes, symbolism, and irony.

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