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THEMES / SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / COLORS
Edith Wharton claims in her introduction that she wanted to write about the rural New England that she saw, not the one frequently written about. She does not paint a quaint, pretty, and endearing picture of rural life. She portrayed the land as harsh, the people as ridiculously stoic and hardened, and poverty as a mean way of life. She tells the story of a triangle of characters. Ethan is married to the sickly and miserably mean Zeena, who inflicts silence and cruelty on her husband.
When Zeena's distant cousin is orphaned, she comes to live with the Fromes. Mattie is picture in complete contrast to Zeena; she is young, healthy, lovely, and lively. But the isolation and harshness of the farm crush her spirit, and she is the one who suggests to Ethan that that commit suicide on the sled. What the reader finds in Ethan Frome is a tragic picture of life.
Edith Wharton uses the landscape to reflect the souls of the characters. Her choice of winter for both the frame and the central story is a direct representation of the barrenness of her characters' lives. They are cold and isolated, like the temperature outside. When Ethan and Mattie reminisce about summer, it is time past, an opportunity for harvest that has been missed. During the story, summer can only exist in the mind as a memory that will never come again. The present difficult reality is represented by the Frome's stony landscape, the old apple trees, and the graveyard.
The foremost colors in Ethan Frome are white and red. While the snow is primarily white and cold and hopeless, as are the souls of the characters, the decorations of human life are red. Mattie, when she appears as womanly, available, and happy, is always decorated with a red scarf or a red ribbon, which Ethan prizes; but her "redness" cannot eliminate the bright whiteness of the cold and barren snow. Zeena's most coveted possession is a red glass pickle-dish, which gets broken when Mattie is using it. Red is, of course, the color of blood and the heart, and the story is a tale about the heart. But like the pickle dish, the heart gets broken and is never repaired.