Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The constraint social and moral concerns place on individual desire is perhaps the novel’s most prominent theme, since Ethan Frome’s plot is concerned with Ethan’s desire for a woman who is not his wife. By denying Zeena a single positive attribute while presenting Mattie as the epitome of glowing, youthful attractiveness, Wharton renders Ethan’s desire to cheat on his wife perfectly understandable. The conflict does not stem from within Ethan’s own heart—his feelings for Mattie never waver. Instead, the conflict occurs between his passions and the constraints placed on him by society, which control his conscience and impede his fulfillment of his passions.
Again and again, Wharton displays the hold that social convention has on Ethan’s desires. Although he has one night alone with Mattie, he cannot help but be reminded of his domestic duties as he sits in his kitchen. He plans to elope and run away to the West, but he cannot bring himself to lie to his neighbors in order to procure the necessary money—and so on. In the end, Ethan opts out of the battle between his desires and social and moral orders. Lacking the courage and strength of will to face down their force, he chooses to abandon life’s burdens by abandoning life itself.
Ethan Frome, the novel’s protagonist, is described by an old man as having “been in Starkfield too many winters.” As the story progresses, the reader, and the narrator, begin to understand more deeply the meaning of this statement. Although a wintry mood grips Ethan Frome from the beginning—even the name Starkfield conjures images of northern winters—the narrator appreciates the winter’s spare loveliness at first. However, he eventually realizes that Starkfield and its inhabitants spend much of each year in what amounts to a state of siege by the elements. The novel suggests that sensitive souls like Ethan become buried emotionally beneath the winter—their resolve and very sense of self sapped by the oppressive power of the six-month-long cold season. Ethan yearns to escape Starkfield; when he was younger, we learn, he hoped to leave his family farm and work as an engineer in a larger town. Though Zeena and poverty are both forces that keep Ethan from fulfilling his dream, the novel again and again positions the climate as a major impediment to both Ethan and his fellow townsfolk. Physical environment is characterized as destiny, and the wintry air of the place seems to have seeped into the Starkfield residents’ very bones.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Ethan and those individuals close to him, including (by the end of the novel) Mattie, suffer from sickness or disability. Caring for the sick and the lame defines Ethan’s life. He spends the years before the novel begins tending to his ailing mother, and then he has to care for his hypochondriacal wife, Zeena. Finally, after his and Mattie’s attempted suicides, Ethan is forced to spend the rest of his days disfigured, living with a sick wife and the handicapped Mattie. Outward physical signs reflect inner realities in Ethan Frome, and the predominance of illness in the characters’ physical states indicates that, inwardly, they are all in states of destitution and decline.
The imagery of Ethan Frome is built around cold, ice and snow, and hues of white. The characters constantly complain about the cold, and the climactic scene hinges on the use of a winter sport—sledding—as a means of suicide. These motifs work to emphasize the novel’s larger theme of winter as a physically and psychologically stifling force. Like the narrator, we initially find beauty in the drifts, flakes, and icicles. Eventually, however, the unremittingly wintry imagery becomes overwhelming and oppressive, as the overall tone and outlook of the book become increasingly bleak. The cumulative effect is to make the reader feel by the end of the novel that, like Ethan himself, we have “been in Starkfield too many winters.”
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In the two key scenes when Mattie and Ethan are alone together—outside the church after the dance and in the Frome house on the evening of Zeena’s absence—Wharton emphasizes that Mattie wears red. At the dance she wears a red scarf, and for the evening alone she puts a red ribbon in her hair. Red is the color of blood, ruddiness, good health, and vitality, all of which Mattie has in abundance, and all of which Zeena lacks. In the oppressive white landscape of Starkfield, red stands out, just as Mattie stands out in the oppressive landscape of Ethan’s life. Red is also the color of transgression and sin—the trademark color of the devil—especially in New England, where in Puritan times adulterers were forced to wear red A’s on their clothes (a punishment immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Thus, Mattie’s scarlet adornments also symbolize her role as Ethan’s temptress toward moral transgression.
During their meal alone, and the evening that follows, Ethan and Mattie share the house with the cat, which first breaks Zeena’s pickle dish and then seats itself in Zeena’s rocking chair. The animal serves as a symbol of Zeena’s tacit invisible presence in the house, as a force that comes between Mattie and Ethan, and reminds them of the wife’s existence. Meanwhile, the breaking of the dish, Zeena’s favorite wedding present, symbolizes the disintegration of the Frome marriage. Zeena’s anguish over the broken dish manifests her deeper anguish over her fractured relationship.
Normally, a sled rider forfeits a considerable amount of control and submits to the forces of gravity and friction but still maintains an ability to steer the sled; Ethan, however, forfeits this ability as well on the final sled run. His decision to coast in his final sled run symbolizes his inability to escape his dilemma through action of any kind. The decision parallels Ethan’s agreement to Mattie’s death wish, his conduct in his marriage, and his attitude toward life in general: unable to face the consequences of any decision, he lets external circumstances—other individuals, society, convention, financial constraints—make his decisions for him. Mattie’s death wish appears especially appealing to Ethan in that it entirely eliminates all consequences for both of them, forever. Just as the rider of a sled relinquishes control, so Ethan surrenders his destiny to the whims of Mattie and of fate.