The Role of Symbolism for Plot Development in “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome can give ambiguous impressions. On the one hand, the beginning is very intriguing. The events take place in a distant place located somewhere in New England. We are shown an old, gloomy disabled person named Ethan Frome, who does not communicate with anyone. But what mystery is hidden in his past? What happened to a once handsome guy and turned him into a cripple? The way the novel starts implies real drama, passions, adventures, and trials. But, despite all the expectations, we are shown a boring chain of events that leads to the fatal contingence. In his dreams, Ethan is about to give up everything and run away with his beloved woman. But as he wakes up, the sinister life reminds him that he will have to stay in his place forever.
On the other hand, throughout the story we see a lot of symbols that help to reinforce the plot development. Let us take a look at some of them. The first is a chest with clothes. At first, Ethan’s wife Zeena tries to move it after his mother’s death, then Mattie is seen doing the same. This chest is a symbol of affection emerging in the hearts of young people. After this very moment we understand that Zeena and Ethan are going to be together, since one can easily notice a sparkle between them. Next, Mattie is leaving the house with this chest; out of this, we can make a conclusion that this is the end and the beginning simultaneously (White, 1995).
The other symbol that should be mentioned is the broken bowl. It is broken by a cat at night, when Mattie and Ethan succumb to temptation for the first time. The relationship of Ethan and Zeena is broken that night together with that glass bowl.
Ethan complains several times that a fox comes to his henhouse and kills chicken. It starts to happen approximately at the same time Mattie appears in their house. She has not killed anyone, of course, but she is actually the reason for the broken family, and this is a direct correlation between her and the aforementioned fox. It is hard to blame her, because Ethan is unhappy with Zeena, and Mattie just appears in the right place at the right time. So, the fox continues its raids of the henhouse and Mattie continues to live at her relative’s place. The day when Zeena understands everything and turns Mattie out, the fox is killed (Bjorkman, 1915).
The poison that Ethan hides in the henhouse is another symbol. Mattie is about to take it, but her lover prevents it. Still, the deadly danger gets too close to them; they should be very careful, but they are not. The same day they come very close to death again, after the collision. This incaution turns Ethan to a cripple and Mattie to a disabled woman, and so the three of them have to share common grief; to bear it, they live under one roof and to take care of each other.