Use of Symbolism in Ethan Frome

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Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome uses the harsh winter landscape and lack of animal life to depict the ….. of not only Ethan’s marriage to Zenobia, but also the lack of …. in Ethans everyday life. In fact, the wintry landscape is used for more than just creating a setting, it also used to depict many of the characters feelings and states of mind. This can be seen on page two when Harmon Gow states, “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters” which allows the readers mind to assume that the harsh wintry landscape has had just as much of an impact on characters like Ethan as the tragedies and perils that have faced them earlier in life.

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Wharton uses the changing of seasons to represent the transformation of Ethan’s life and much like the stark contrast between summer and winter Ethans feelings drastically change from a state of excitement with mattie to a much more somber state of mind after the “smash-up”. Readers are able to see the real effects of winter on Ethan when the narrator states that, “He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe…fast bound below the surface”(5) This allows an insight into the effects of many years spent trapped in an unforgiving cold and desolate landscape which is parallel to that of Ethan’s marriage. Wharton continues to compare the marriage of Ethan and Zeena to the barren terrain by conveying the feeling of isolation into the wintry countryside. On page three Wharton states, “But when winter shut down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies…” to convey to readers the feelings of entrapment and seclusion that Ethan felt by being married to a women who to him embodied the bitterness of the cold winter season.

Continuing her theme of symbolism, Wharton also uses wildlife or lack thereof as an example of the lovelessness of Ethan’s marriage and the trials and tribulations he has faced in life. The winter season renders the land fruitless and unable to sustain life, which could have been purposefully described by the author to portray the bleakness of Ethan’s relationship. Even though the setting doesn’t offer many opportunities for an abundance of wildlife one prominent animal that is often brought to the reader’s attention is the horses that reside in Starkfield. Ethan’s horse is described by the narrator as a “hollow-backed bay” who’s “pace was slow” and to readers the similarities between Ethan and his horse are almost uncanny.

Much like the narrator judged the horse by its outward appearance he too, along with others, judge Ethan firstlyon his outward appearance before taking into consideration how intelligent he may be or what other attribute he may have to offer to society. Wharton uses phrases such as, “we began to crawl up the long hill…” to further relate the horses struggle of ascending the hill to Ethan’s struggle of overcoming his own “hills” in life. The author also places the horse along with Ethan and the narrator in the middle of a snow storm, which to readers can portray the fact that just like the horse, Ethan himself has had to endure many “storms” himself and although he may “show signs of exsaughtion” or may lose the path along the way somehow he always seems to find a way back to the path that leads him home.

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