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Ethan is held down by a ball and chain; his marriage to his wife, Zeena.It seems as though Mattie is the secret key to unlocking the ball and chain and freeing Ethan of his sin-filled heart.From that point on, winter presides over the tragedy in all its manifestations of snow, ice, wind, cold, darkness, and death.
Mattie's change in mood reminds Ethan of "the flit of a bird in the branches" and he feels that walking with her is similar to "floating on a summer stream." Later in the novel, when Ethan goes downstairs to tell Mattie that she will have to leave their house, their conversation has the effect of "a torch of warning" in a "black landscape." Similes, comparisons of two unlike things that use words of comparison such as like or as, are direct comparisons that Wharton uses throughout the novel. " As Mattie and Ethan approach their crippling accident, darkness prevails over the imagery.
At the beginning of the novel, Ethan's perception of Mattie's face is "like a window that has caught the sunset," and later, he thinks her face seems "like a wheat field under a summer breeze." As Ethan and Mattie walk home from the dance, Ethan reveals to Mattie that he had been hiding while she talked to Denis Eady. Darkness comes, "dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs." The black veil causes the reader to think of a funeral.
Zeena's hair, on the other hand, is always unattractively crimped and confined with pins, just as her personality seems pinched and constrained.
The symbolic use of Mattie's hair is more important at the climax of the novel, when it represents beauty and love, to which Ethan is willing to give his love — but can't.
The symbols used by Wharton in Ethan Frome reinforce the themes of silence, isolation, and entrapment; feelings that Ethan experiences in his marriage.
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The name is also symbolic of the stark and carefully composed prose Wharton used to write the story.
Other symbols include the dead vine on the front porch of Fromes' farmhouse that symbolizes the dead and dying spirits that inhabit the house and its adjacent graveyard, the farmhouse itself that has lost the "L" seems to be symbolic of Ethan (the house looks "forlorn" and "lonely"), it stands alone without support — isolated and lonely.
A symbol functions literally as a concrete object and figuratively as a representation of an idea.
Symbols allow writers to compress complicated ideas or views into an image or word.