The repetitive patterns or sequences in theme, narrative and symbols (also known as motifs), in Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome are a direct manifestation of the atmosphere that surrounds the sad life and fate of Ethan. Moreover, the use of sequences and patterns helps the reader realize that Ethan's life is nothing but a vicious cycle of bad choices, bad company, and bad luck. In other words, Wharton uses imagery, narrative techniques, motifs, and situational conflicts in a way that denotes that there is no ending to Ethan's struggles, whether this is a fair thing or not.
As far as motif, or use of recurrent imagery, we can certainly list "coldness" as one of the most evident. We find coldness in Ethan's town of Starkfield, whose barren, white, and cold weather is so endless that it is compared to
"a cemetery for those who are still physically living"
We find coldness in Zeena. We find coldness in Ethan's own demeanor, as if he blended with it, like the narrator says:
[Ethan] seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.
Moreover, it is coldness that brings about snow: the conduit which allows Ethan and Mattie to slide towards the tree, and seeking their deaths...only to remain alive, in an even more devastating state of existence.
Another startling recurrence in Ethan Frome is "chance, in the form ofmissed opportunities". Ethan is known to have had lady luck come up surreptitiously and shyly, as it goes away as soon as change is about to occur. Ethan is known to have had a chance to go to school, and then the money ran out and he could not go. Later we see that he has an opportunity to elope with Mattie but, once again, he does not have the money to do it. He cannot even borrow it.
Therefore, poor chances, and the lack of luck, make Ethan's situation desperate. However, he has a hand in his own fate, for most of his pain has also been caused by the choices that he has made in life. For example, Zeena enters Ethan's life when Ethan's mother is sick and nobody else can take care of her. Ethan marries Zeena more out of duty and appreciation than anything else. Had he not married Zeena, he may have had a much happier, or better yet, less miserable, life.
A final, repetitive pattern in Ethan Frome is the use of "illness as an element of limitation". It is disease and illness that brings Ethan and Zeena together in the first place. After the marriage, it is Zeena who is always ill, and her presence limits the freedom of action and speech in the household. Ethan ends up deformed, which limits his own ability to work. Mattie becomes deformed as well, as a result of her failed suicide attempt with Ethan, and moves to his house to do nothing but complaint all day-while Zeena...
takes care of both her, and Ethan as well.
In all, the situations that are present in Ethan Frome show a study in the tragedy of a life that life brings with it poor chances, bad choices, and a myriad of limitations. It is an illustration of the interaction of characters and their circumstances, and how this interaction affects the mood and atmosphere of the entire story.