Imagery and Symbolism

In the novel Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton’s characters are incapable of effectively expressing their feelings and ideas. Wharton is presented with the difficulty of showing the character’s problems to her readers. She is able to correct this problem by the use of various types of imagery and symbolism throughout the novel. A few examples are the compatibility of setting and character, different uses of light and dark and sexual symbolism.
The frustrating main character Ethan, along with Mattie (at the end of the novel), suffer from sickness or disability. Ethan’s life is defined by caring for the sick. In the years before the novel begins, Ethan tends to his ailing mother, and then is required to care for his wife Zeena, who is living with abnormalities. After Ethan and Mattie’s attempted suicides, Ethan has to spend the rest of his life disabled and living with a sick wife and the handicapped Mattie. The signs of illness in the characters give indication that the characters are ultimately in states of deprivation and decline.
The imagery in the novel is centered on cold, ice and snow, and hues of white. The characters are always complaining about the cold, and the scene at the end of the novel uses the winter sport sledding as a means of suicide.   The symbolization of winter is used as a powerful, psychological force in the novel. There is beauty initially in the snowflakes and icicles, but eventually the imagery becomes overwhelming as the tone of the novel becomes increasingly cold and grim.
In contrast to the dull gray and white colors of winter, there are a couple instances where Wharton emphasizes Mattie wearing the color red. Mattie wears a red scarf outside the church after the dance, and she wears a red ribbon in her hair in the Frome house on the evening of Zeena’s absence. Red is seen as the color of blood, good health and vitality, all of which Mattie possesses, and all of which Zeena lacks. Red stands out in the landscape of Starkfield, just as...