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Simply put, the sled in Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome represents freedom in more ways than one. However, it will later become a symbol of oppression and despair.
The story takes place in the ever-cold, snowy, and frigid town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, setting the atmosphere for a very limited and uncomfortable place for activity. The sleds are used by everybody in Starkfield, from children to adults, for the dual purpose of entertaining and commuting.
Ethan, being one of the most oppressed and limited characters ever written about, is unable to express himself. He cannot do it through words, because his wife Zenna no longer likes to engage in conversation. He cannot express his love for Mattie, because is married and owes loyalty to Zeena. He cannot rejoice in his feelings for Mattie because it would be inappropriate. He cannot even feel fully as a man because he is unable to provide well for his family.
When we take this into consideration, we wonder when or how Ethan could possibly end this intolerable situation. This is when the sled comes into play. First, the sled is what brings Mattie and Ethan together. In Chapter 9, Ethan gets the idea of getting a sled and lose himself in a much needed fun ride with Mattie. He is, for once, able to give Mattie something and able to provide, even if a little comfort, for the both of them.
Additionally, the sled ride helps Ethan let out his want to protect Mattie. he gets to be "the man" for once and still is able to be with the person he truly loves.
“Were you scared I'd run you into the elm?” he asked with a boyish laugh.
“I told you I was never scared with you,” she answered.
The strange exaltation of his mood had brought on one of his rare fits of boastfulness. “It is a tricky place, though. The least swerve, and we'd never ha’ come up again. But I can measure distances to a hair's-breadth-always could.”
She murmured: “I always say you've got the surest eye…”
When Mattie proposes the suicide pact, it is through the sled that they aim to acquire their eternal freedom. Their situation is so bad that only death will liberate them. This is how the sled is a symbol of freedom.
However, in the end, it is a symbol of deeper oppression, for Mattie and Ethan do not die. Instead, they suffer the crash and end up deformed and in need of care. Therefore, what once is used as a symbol of freedom and joy will later become a symbol of complete despair.
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