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.