Theme and Symbol in Ethan Frome

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Divided between the two women, Ethan Frome is a highly confused man. He seeks to find some “ease and freedom” represented by Mattie, but society would not allow him to do so. Society instead compels him to accept its burden represented for him in the shape of Zeena, although it means the ruin of his life. The social pressure, whether it takes the form of conventional morality or any other forms, offers Ethan blind opposition at every turn, leashing his actions “like the jerk of a chain” (p.3). Aware that he has not even the money to take Mattie with him to the West, for instance, Ethan starts on foot for Starkfield to ask Andrew Hale, the village carpenter, for an advance on some lumber. In this episode, he is soon intercepted on the way by Mrs. Hale, who, appealing to his sympathy by a few kind words, baffles his attempt at the very moment when his is about to revolt.

Throughout the novel, this “invisible hand” of social pressure is constantly imaged to Ethan as a prison: “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out-none. He was a prisoner for life.” (p.134). A little bit later in the story, Ethan, watching Mattie's trunk being carried away in a sleigh to the station, has the feeling that “ his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every ick of the clock.” (p.147). Again he expresses the same emotion later when he says to Mattie as they make the way to the station, “I'm tied hand and foot, Mattie. There isn't a thing I can do.” (p.158)

Because Ethan suffers from inner conflict in his own mind, the group pressure of convention and morality seems to have little, if any, power over him. If, indeed, social force had been involved in h...

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...f her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches” (p.46). To Ethan Frome, Mattie is “his one ray of light” (p.134) which gives meaning to his bleak existence but is to be extinguished by Zeena's cruelty. The image of light is further reinforce by the bright moon. Which is mentioned over and over in the novel.

Ethan Frome is the only book Edith Wharton ever wrote that the author's name is readily -and deservedly- associated with, and it has in fact been held in higher esteem than any other of her novels. This book is a brilliant makes a use of imagery and symbolism. The destiny of human existence which Ethan can never solve is more clearly sharpened by Wharton's skillful use of contrasting images and symbols. More significantly, it is by her use of this symbolic imagery that the characterization of the novel can be fully understand.
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