Student Question

How does Mattie set the dinner table in Ethan Frome, what breaks, and what might it symbolize?

Expert Answers

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When Zeena leaves for Bettsbridge, Ethan and Mattie finally have an opportunity to relax. While Zeena is present, both Ethan and Mattie feel as if they are under a microscope. Zeena is unduly critical and she makes life difficult for all. On this night, therefore, Mattie prepares a pleasant meal that includes doughnuts and pickles. She carefully sets the table, using the best dishes in the house and she hopes that Ethan will enjoy the food and the ambiance. Fortunately, he does. Unfortunately, the cat crosses the table and breaks Zeena’s pickle dish. Although Ethan offers to simply clean up the mess, Mattie panics because she knows that Zeena will be angered by the loss. Apparently, she kept the pickle dish (a wedding present) in a particular location and only used it for special occasions. 

Breaking the pickle dish could possibly suggest two unfortunate circumstances. The first possibility is that the destruction of the pickle dish signals the ruin of Ethan’s and Zeena’s pleasant evening. The other option is that the pickle dish, a wedding present to Ethan and Zeena, could signal the figurative end of their marriage, which was already damaged and strained.

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