Discussion Topic

Symbolism in Ethan Frome

Summary:

In Ethan Frome, symbolism is used extensively to enhance the narrative. The most notable symbols include the dead cucumber vine, representing death and decay, and the cat, symbolizing Zeena's presence and control. The color red, associated with Mattie, symbolizes passion and vitality, contrasting with the cold, oppressive environment of Ethan's life.

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What are the symbols in Ethan Frome and their meanings?

Consider how many of these are representative of death -- the gravestones, the broken down house, and the dead vine are obvious, plus we know from reading that the elm tree and the final sled run are intended for Ethan and Mattie's death, but they are only crippled in the end.  As for things that are crippled, look at the broken down house and shutterless windows -- the physical space of Ethan is broken, just like his body is broken.  All of this is set in place whose name couldn't be more indicative of Ethan's life -- it is a stark (cold, barren, plain) field (space, life).  The kitchen and the cat in particular represent Zeena who is the omnipresent hold over Ethan due his sense of duty and obligation.  Red traditionally signifies love, life, passion and the like.  The red items are special, and used by Mattie, who represents the possibility of life and love for Ethan.  This novel is full of symbols and they frequently can be connected to other symbols like done above.

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What is the symbolism in Ethan Frome?

Ethan Frome is full of symbolism. The concept of death and mortality, in particular, is represented symbolically throughout this novella. The title character wishes his wife were dead. This longing comes out in several ways through symbolic descriptions. The dead cucumber vine that Ethan observes in chapter 2 is directly connected with his longing for his wife's demise. When Ethan sees this dead plant, he thinks to himself that it would be best if Zeena meets the same end.

The color red is another poignant symbol throughout this story. Red represents both violence and passion. The red pickle dish, a wedding present for Ethan and Zeena, is broken during a romantic encounter with Mattie. This is symbolic of the unraveling of Ethan's marriage and the lust between him and Mattie. The color red also appears in the description of Ethan's scar, Mattie's scarf and ribbon, and the Sun. This color, representing the feelings of the characters, stands in stark contrast to the cold and colorless setting of a New England winter.

The gravestones of Ethan's ancestors are a symbol of his hopelessness. Ethan had dreamed of escaping the life he has in Starkfield. However, each time he sees these graves he is reminded that no one in his family has ever escaped this life. To Ethan, these gravestones seem to mock his desire for something else and represent his inability to avoid any fate but joining his deceased family in the same graveyard.

The railroad is a symbol of the changing times. The railroad has meant that Starkfield has become left behind as other places see modernization and progress. Because of the railroad, Ethan cannot find any buyers for his farm or sawmill. Just as the railroad has caused his community to be left behind, it has done the same by trapping Ethan in a life he does not want.

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