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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ethan Frome!