The character of Ethan Frome through Symbolism
William Hurt Ms. McIntosh American Literature Honors 18 December 2018 , the main character in Edith Wharton’s most well-known work, Ethan Frome, is an incredibly complex and emotional character that we are able to unravel throughout the novella through the use of symbolism by the author. Wharton incorporates aspects of forbidden love, isolation, and even attempted suicide into the novel.
Wharton not only tells an emotional story of tragic love, she brilliantly incorporates complex symbolism throughout the novella. This novella gives the reader and critic insight into the relationships between the three main characters; Ethan Frome, his wife, Zeena Frome, and their maid, Mattie Silver. The symbolism in the story, gives the reader an incentive for reading and provides more of an examination into the character of Ethan. The story, So overwhelming that the modern mind rebels against it as a typical specimen of human experience (Bjorkman), gives a very realistic and emotional feeling to the reader. Ethan feels trapped and unhappy in the dismal relationship with his wife INSERT. When Zeena’s cousin, a young energetic girl, named Mattie Silver, comes to live with the couple, Ethan finds himself falling in love with the girl and eventually considers running off with her to begin a new life. Ethan is an emotional wreck inside, although he does not show it as much through his physical actions INSERT. While some critics have stated that Ethan Frome is simply a depressing story about a love affair, even going so far as to call it a dead book (trilling) according to Lionel Trilling, a popular critic in the early twentieth century. In reality, through the use of symbolism, the novel gives true insight into the mental condition of Ethan, and how the events and setting of the story affect this incredibly complex character.
The setting of the novella, much like Ethan, is a Hard and Frozen (173) landscape in a town in New England, called Starkville. Ethan lives with his wife on a failing farm in a seemingly bleak area. The narrator describes Ethan, saying, Ethan Frome drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand… He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe (Wharton 14). The part about him holding the reign loosely in his left hand, symbolizes the lack of control that Ethan has over his life. The setting gives obvious examples of Symbolism throughout the novel. The most obvious of which, is simply the condition of the setting, cold, empty, gloomy, even depressing. Ethan, introduced by the narrator as, bleak and unapproachable (3-4), is similar to the winter scene. The setting is dismal in the dead of winter in the small town. The parallel between Ethan’s personality and the setting is uncanny. The uses of symbolism that are alluding Ethan to the setting, gives insight into the character of Ethan. Ethan’s relationship with Mattie, the couples’ maid, begins as almost non-existent, but develops into love after watching her dance with another man and realizing that he is jealous. Mattie is much younger than fifty-two-year-old Ethan, and Zeena. She is much more energetic and lively, and she awakens Ethan to what he has been missing in his relationship with his wife. Ethan begins to wonder if the affectious feelings are mutual, and fanaticizes about perusing an either extra-marital, or post-divorce (with Zeena) marriage with her. Ethan is madly in love with her, but he does not act on his feelings Ethan’s relationship with his wife, Zeena, is unhealthy and miserable for both of them. Zeena is physically described as, Zeena is a Hypochondriac, meaning that she exaggerates her health problems dramatically. The situation leads them to hire a maid of sorts to help Zeena with her condition. The maid they hire is a cousin of Zeena, her name is Mattie. Ethan does not realize how unhappy he is in their marriage until he begins to have affections for Maddie. Ethan knows that he needs to continue to care for his sick wife, but he dreams about running off with Maddie, which he seriously considers doing. The marriage is broken. When Zeena was gone for an examination by another doctor, she warns Mattie not to use the red pickle dish, because it is her favorite wedding present. Mattie is setting the dinner table fancily for Ethan and her, and decides to go against what Zeena said. The dish gets broken, gathering up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body (Wharton 70). The red pickle dish breaking symbolizes the marriage, and how, although it is broken, it is hidden away by Ethan to deal with later. The color of the dish is also important as it is a significant symbol throughout the book symbolizing passion, in this case the lack of passion between the couple.
When Zeena finds out about the broken pickle dish, she is furious. Ethan tells her that the cat knocked it off of the shelf and he or Mattie had no part in it. Zeena sees right through the lie, stating, I knew the cat was a smart cat, she said in a high voice, but I didn’t know he was smart enough to pick up the pieces of my pickle dish and lay em edge to edge on the shelf he knocked em off of. The cat serves the symbolic purpose of reminding Ethan that he is married to Zeena, and not to try to peruse a relationship with Mattie. The cat is like the angel on the shoulder of Ethan, reminding him not to act upon his feelings for her. This is important, because it shows that Ethan needs the reminder. He has lost interest in his wife and at this point, she is in his way. Throughout the novella, there is an ongoing dialogue between Ethan and Mattie about sledding. When Ethan is taking Mattie to the train station, to leave the Frome’s house, Ethan tells Mattie how he feels about her. On the journey, they see a sled under a tree and decide to finally go sledding like they had been talking about for so long. On their second run, they decide to try to commit double-suicide, by hitting a tree at full speed. Just before the pair hits the tree, that would have no doubt killed them, Ethan pulls the sled off of its course and so it did not make a direct impact. The event left Ethan crippled, and Mattie paralyzed. The failed suicide attempt is also a symbol, Ethan does not know how to escape or deal with conflicts. His marital conflict, his nearly adulterous actions, his problems communicating with his wife. These things demonstrate how Ethan handles conflict; he doesn’t. Ethan is submissive, he lets whatever is going on around him continue. The only time in the novella that he decides to step in and try to resolve a conflict, is when Zeena is making Mattie leave, and he is unsuccessful.
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