Symbols in Ethan Frome

Symbols Examples in Ethan Frome:

Prologue 1

"Carcel lamp..."   (Prologue)

A Carcel lamp is a type of lamp invented by Bernard Guillaume Carcel in the 19th century. It was considered a unique and innovative invention for its time, one of the main reasons being its ability to keep oil constantly burning on its own—without human intervention. In this way, the lamp may symbolize both the significant technological progress of the time and a sense of insignificance—as the lamp can now function for long periods of time largely without the help of the human.

"cherry-coloured “fascinator”..."   (Chapter I)

A “fascinator” is kind of scarf that women often wrapped around their heads that was common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ethan uses the scarf as an easy way to keep track of its wearer, a woman to whom he has taken a swift liking. Note the color choice here, as “cherry” or “red” have typically had strong associations with love, desire, heat, etc.

"cold fires..."   (Chapter I)

Wharton’s use of oxymoron (a literary device in which the author uses two contradictory terms in conjunction) highlights conflicting dualities throughout the novel such as determinism versus free will, nature versus man, and duty versus passion. Here, the oxymoron emphasizes the effects of a bitter winter on the human spirit. Consider the word “cold” in relation to the constellation Orion’s distance. This might signify an ominous event looming in the distance.

"dead cucumber-vine..."   (Chapter II)

Vining cucumbers can only grow in the warm summer months. The dead cucumber-vine immediately reminds Ethan of his wife, Zeena, as he wonders, “If it was there for Zeena—”. Recall that Zeena has been associated with winter before, but here, the cucumber-vine symbolizes death—nothing can thrive in Zeena’s presence.

"pickle-dish..."   (Chapter IV)

The pickle-dish was a wedding gift that Zeena cherishes so much that she does not even want “company” to use it—Zeena even set it out of reach with her other treasured things. However, Mattie goes out of her way to use it tonight for her and Ethan’s dinner because she wants it to be special. Since it breaks, we can consider the broken wedding gift as symbolic of either Ethan and Zeena’s marriage or of the shattering of remaining illusions that he is not having an affair.

"crimson ribbon..."   (Chapter IV)

Mattie is again wearing the color red, and this time it is made clear that the ribbon is not something that she has worn before—Ethan even calling it a “tribute to the unusual.” Recalling the connection between red and desire, it is important to remember that this is the first time that Zeena will be away all night.

"sharp scent of the geraniums..."   (Chapter V)

Recall that Ethan planted the geraniums in order to “make a garden for Mattie” and that we can consider the garden as symbolic of the Garden of Eden. After Ethan notes the smell of the geraniums in the room, “all constraint vanished” between Ethan and Mattie. Their conversation flows more easily after the geraniums are mentioned, and they both feel a sense of ease.