Ethan Frome is a dramatic romantic story based on the love triangle between Ethan, his wife Zeena, and their housekeeper Mattie Silver. The author introduces multiple themes and conflicts throughout its words and pages. Within these themes of love, poverty, and isolation the author introduces three distinct symbols being the outdoors, bedroom and kitchen which come to mean much more than originally thought of as the novel progresses. These three symbols highlight and contain the major conflicts that arise all throughout the novel.
It is no coincidence that the novel takes place in the cold and boring town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The word “stark” means bare, desolate and grim; this not only describes the actual town of Starkfield, but also the life of Ethan and the relationship he has with his wife. Ethan had planned on moving from Starkfiled, but after then the death of his father and illness of his mother kept him and Zeena confined in the town. It seems as though the landscape also strictly holds them back from their dreams and amitions, while also chaining their relationship together.
The cold weather represents how bitter the Fromes are toward each other and symbolizes the fact that there is no love between the two of them at all. The ever present snow in Starkfield represents the drab, bland relationship Ethan and Zeena share because like the snow, it never disappears. Finally, Ethan’s farm house is exiled and shunned from the rest of Starkfield. He then isolates himself because he knows that the people in town gossip all about him and he would rather remain cut off and mysterious. Many other key events within the book take place in and revolve around objects stationed in the kitchen.
The kitchen is a great deal warmer that both the outside and other rooms of the house. Because Ethan and Mattie share many in depth moments while in the kitchen, this warmth represents her vitality not only in the Frome household but in the whole town of Starkfield. An example is when Mattie and Ethan are by themselves in the kitchen and share their first kiss while Zeena is away on a trip to another town. But the objects contained in the kitchen seem to act in Zeena’s place while she’s gone, as though she never leaves and keeps a watchful eye on the two of them.
Every time Ethan and Mattie get close to one another or their thoughts turn toward each other, the cat jumps in Zeena’s chair or progresses toward one of them. The cat appears as to actually be Zeena, and in her absence does anything to keep Ethan and Mattie apart for Zeena’s sake. The pickle dish also symbolizes many elements of the story; it was a gift given to Ethan and Zeena on their wedding day and had been undisturbed since that special day. The dish is like their vows – in that they were ignored and never thought of again because it was placed on the top shelf while they don’t honor their vows.
The cat, representing Zeena, then knocked the dish down, causing it to shatter into pieces, in an attempt to separate Ethan and Mattie. When Zeena finally discovered the dish was broken she was enraged beyond what anyone would assume. When you delve deeper into the meaning of the broken pickle dish, then you can tell she’s obviously not mad over the actual broken dish at all, but for what it truly actually symbolizes… her broken marriage to Ethan Frome. Dark and uninviting, Zeena’s own private bedroom and its contents are the final symbols presented in the book by the author.
The room is sadly dark at all times, which represents the darkness and lifelessness in Zeena’s heart. She is upset and bitter toward Ethan because they never moved out of Starkfield and fulfilled any of their dreams with each other. Her heart is torn because she knows how Ethan feels towards the other woman, Mattie. Zeena always stays in her room and sleeps in her own bed by herself, without her husband. This shows her feelings of both isolation in the marraige and lack of love from Ethan.
Ethan is infuriated because Zeena has hired a new girl to work for them without first consulting him and what he wanted, and now they must fire Mattie. The dreary, dark room shows how there is no love in the marriage. Overall, there is alot of symbolism in Ethan Frome that helps readers understand the novel and its contents more. The author did an amazingly good job in discreetly placing symbols such as a rocking chair and a cat within the book. These seemingly small objects make the story what it is and helps show the bigger picture of the poor, dreary, and loveless life of Ethan Frome.