How does Wharton use symbolism to reinforce plot development in Ethan Frome?

The course of events in Ethan Frome is punctuated by a series of obvious symbolic devices, each of which serves to illustrate the development of the relationships among Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena. First, we encounter the connection between Mattie and the color red—she wears a red scarf to the dance and a red ribbon in her hair for her dinner alone with Ethan. In both cases, the color symbolizes her vitality and attractiveness in contrast with Zeena’s cold demeanor. It also symbolizes her temptation of Ethan toward sexual transgression. The cat that disrupts Ethan and Mattie’s meal and breaks Zeena’s favorite dish symbolizes the wife’s dominating spiritual presence in the Frome household, and how she comes between her husband and her cousin in their budding romance. Finally, Ethan and Mattie’s climactic sled ride symbolizes the careening, out-of-control course that Ethan embraces when he sets prudence aside and gives in to Mattie’s impulsive death wish. The sled ride is also symbolic of his more general approach to life—he relinquishes responsibility and agency and surrenders to momentum.

Thus, each of Ethan’s and Mattie’s three critical scenes together—outside the church, alone at home, and on the sledding hill—is marked by patent symbolism on Wharton’s part. Because by interpreting the symbols we add meaning to Ethan and Mattie’s interaction that neither of the characters perceives, Wharton’s use of symbolism creates dramatic irony. Along with the narrator’s use of foreshadowing, the dramatic irony created through symbolism adds to the sense of inevitable doom that surrounds the novel’s events.

Is Ethan a strong person? Why or why not?

When the narrator first comes to Starkfield, he is struck by the “careless powerful look” that Ethan Frome possesses in spite of his maimed body. Clearly, Ethan possesses great physical strength, which coexists with a strong, well-formed conscience—he is undeniably a good person. Nevertheless, he seems to lack inner strength; his story stands as an illustration of the way that a person can be mastered by, rather than a master of, circumstances. He fails to realize any of his desires, and although one can hardly blame him for it, one feels that Ethan must nevertheless bear some responsibility—for allowing Zeena’s illness to crush his desire to leave Starkfield, and then for never daring to break with convention and with his wife in the name of his romantic passions. The only proactive deed he undertakes is the final sled ride. Yet even this has been pushed on him by Mattie—and suicide represents what is ultimately only a continued passivity. Unable to face the consequences of any actual decision, Ethan lets Mattie make a choice for him; and although his is the deed that seals that choice, it is a choice to end all choices.

Discuss the relationship between the physical environment of Starkfield and the nature of the characters’ inner states.

Not only does bleak, oppressive cold shape Starkfield’s physical landscape; it penetrates the characters’ psychic landscapes as well. Early on, the narrator uses a metaphor of a city under siege to describe Starkfield in winter, comparing the freezing, snowy weather to a besieging army, and the inhabitants of Starkfield to a “starved garrison.” This metaphor establishes the theme of how Starkfield’s icy climate oppresses human lives. Just as the village’s spirit is crushed by the six months of ice and snow, so Ethan’s personal spirit is crushed—an old man describes Ethan as having “been in Starkfield too many winters.” Ethan’s home comes to seem like a prison that constricts him.

Wharton emphasizes that Ethan yearns to escape Starkfield. Before Zeena’s illness, he had planned to sell his farm, move to a larger town, and find work as an engineer. But he never escapes, and the reader has the sense that the oppressive spirit of the endless winters, along with his poverty and Zeena’s illness, seem to have settled over his heart, pinning him to one place. Mattie, with her high spirits and red trimmings—which contrast sharply with the deathly whiteness of Starkfield—appears to offer Ethan a way out, but in the end she, too, succumbs to the aura of the landscape. By the end of the novel, we see her sitting in the Frome farmhouse during a blizzard, complaining bitterly about the cold.