Symbolism in Ethan Frome

Ben Yust

Symbolism can give additional meaning to a variety of texts. From music to movies to novels, symbolism creates an even deeper meaning than found in a surface reading. The symbolism found within Ethan Frome adds to the inherent meaning of the text to give it an even deeper meaning. Edith Wharton uses the pickle dish, the Oak tree, and the cat as symbols to achieve deeper meaning. The pickle dish is of great significance in the novel. It is used to represent Zeena's virginity. Mattie seamed to know a great deal more about the pickle dish than Ethan did. She had to remind him "It was a wedding present don't you remember? It came all the way from Philadelphia, from Zeena's aunt that married a minister"(70). Ethan never bothered to pay much attention to the pickle dish. When Zeena returned and noticed that the pickle dish was broken she said, "It takes the step-ladder to get at the top shelf, and I put Aunt Philura Maple's pickle-dish up there o' purpose when we was married, and it's never been down since, 'cept for the spring cleaning, and then I always lifted it with my own hands, so's 't shouldn't get broke"(100). The symbolism becomes clear when Zeena explains that the only person to touch it is herself and only to clean it. The oak tree is used to symbolize Ethan in the novel. The connection can be seen by comparing the characteristics of each. The Oak tree is seen by the characters in the novel as a solid, unchanging, and immovable object. The same can be said about Ethan. He has always has and probably always will live in Starkfield. According to the narrator, "he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the 'natives' were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain"(11). Although he wasn't dangerous by nature, people still respected and sometimes feared him. He had a commanding air about him that everyone noticed. The cat is used to be symbolic of Zeena. While Zeena was away, the cat was constantly underfoot and in the way of Ethan and Mattie. The cat was trying to get attention by jumping " between them into Zeena's empty chair"(68)." The cat tried to get attention like Zeena, and also assumed her place at the dinner table. While Ethan and Mattie were sitting by the fire, the cat jumped out of Zeena's chair, making it rock. Ethan thought, "She'll be rocking in it herself this time to-morrow"(78). Even Ethan noticed the connection between Zeena and the cat.