The Marriage Symbolism
In the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, as in many other novels, there are many issues that subtly and sometimes not so subtly, are represented with symbols. One such issue in the novel is the marriage between Ethan and Zeena, and how each other’s emotion agitates the other. This is a cold and passionless marriage, where partners are not connected and neither communicates with each other.
While Zeena has many symbols representing her struggle, the marriage symbols are perhaps the most prevalent dealing with Ethan. During the novel, one should realize several things about the symbolism surrounding Ethan’s house. When he first walks past the gravestones of his parents, it states “Sacred to the memory of Ethan Frome and endurance his wife, who dwelled together in peace for fifty years.” (Pg. 72) Ethan wonders if this would someday bear his and Zeena’s name. This gravestone epitomizes their dead marriage, peacefully dead next to each other, never actually living. Throughout their marriage up to that point, except in the very beginning, they have peacefully existed with each other, tolerating each other, but never releasing any life, as if they really were dead. Another symbol dealing with Ethan is the missing “L” in his house. Ethan states that, “The ‘L’ was bigger in my father’s time; I had to take it down a while back” (Pg. 19) This is somewhat ironic because this is about the time that Zeena came into his life. Edith Wharton also states that, “The ‘L’ rather than the actual house seems to be the centre of the farmThe hearth stone of the farm.” (Pg. 19) This seems to be the symbol for Ethan and Zeena’s marriage, where the warmth was taken out between them and now the two unconnected edifices (Zeena and Ethan) have a harsh, impenetrable barrier of cold between them. In order for one of them to cross the barrier into one of the other’s domain, they must exert a great deal of effort, and neither has had enough concern with the marriage to try and exert that effort.
Mattie is rather interesting for the fact that she brings to Ethan the passion that has been missing between him and Zeena. Mattie is symbolized by the color red and light, the exact opposite of Zeena. In several instances Ethan is almost hypnotically drawn to her light as if she was a torch and he was a moth. She is almost passion personified, as is shown by the color that is symbolized with her character, red. This is the instance when she is driving home with Ethan from the dance. “He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against her red scarf.” (Pg. 41) Such is the delectability of Mattie that makes Ethan want to almost taste her. This passion with which Ethan has recently become re-acquainted with becomes apparent when he is not the only one being affected by the incident as Zeena and Ethan have their first fight in many years. On Pg. 101 the choice of words the Edith Wharton chooses for Zeena becomes curious. “Her voice rose furiously with his” this would have never been used in a sentence describing Zeena in the beginning of the book.
This passion is perhaps repressed rage for what happens during Ethan and Mattie’s meal together. During the night that Zeena is gone, Mattie and Ethan decide to have a nice dinner together. Mattie is described as having “through her hair she had run a streak of a crimson ribbon,” (Pg. 74) and her usual association with red was complete, but Mattie also manages to take down Zeena’s prized plate to make this night even more special. The plate was described as “Never meant to be used, not even for company, and I had to get on the step-ladder to reach it down from the top shelf of the china closet, where she keeps it with all of her best things”. (Pg. 77) This phrase could almost be used to describe Ethan’s relationship with Zeena, and now Mattie came into their relationship, a relationship that was never to be moved out of the mortuary like state it was in, finally felt something. When Mattie and Ethan decide to eat using the plate, they munched and Ethan “feigned an insatiable appetite for dough-nuts and sweet pickles”. (Pg. 76) This erotic symbolism is present through out the entire book as well. While eating, the ever vigilant pussy-cat, who represents the sly and kneiving Zeena, numerous times gets in Mattie’s way, and eventually breaks the fine china dish, spilling pickles everywhere. While they both try to decide what to do, Ethan “laid the pieces together with such accuracy of touch that a close inspection of touch convinced him of the impossibility of detecting from below that the dish was broken.” (Pg. 79) While before Ethan’s marriage had always been out or reach to either partner (the plate earlier) after the introduction of passion from Mattie is shattered to pieces (the dish shattering). While Ethan tries to convince himself that his marriage is the same as it was before, and it might appear that way from below, Ethan knew and Zeena would soon know that it had been irreparably damaged.
Although Ethan and Zeena’s marriage might have been cold and unreachable in the beginning, it was at least steady. With the introduction of passionate Mattie, their marriage has been forced to use emotion and confront itself, whether that confrontation is pretty or not.