Winter and cold
Throughout Ethan Frome, the characters and setting mirror each other. Starkfield is besieged by long winters in which everything lies buried under a deep, frozen layer of snow. Similarly, Ethan "seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface."
Ethan marries Zeena only because he does not want to spend a winter alone in the silent farmhouse. But soon, Zeena too falls silent, her emotional chill becoming an extension of the external chill whose deadening influence Ethan had feared.
Winter is the barren season, when nothing grows, and Ethan and Zeena's marriage is barren, in that they are childless. Zeena lacks the fresh beauty that is associated with fertility: her breasts are sunken, her face gaunt, her skin "bloodless." A symbol of the barrenness of their marriage is the red pickle dish, which Zeena keeps unused on an upper shelf of the china closet. Mattie's action in getting it down so that Ethan and she can use it - an act that results in its being broken - is symbolic of the threat that the beautiful and fertile Mattie poses to Ethan's marriage.
While images of winter and frozenness characterize Ethan and Zeena, Mattie is described in terms of warmth and spring. In Chapter 8, when Ethan is determined to do something to enable him to be with Mattie, the sun comes out and a "pale haze" of spring can be seen, which Ethan associates with Mattie.
Just as Ethan's season is winter, his element is darkness, while Mattie's is light. Even Mattie's name, Silver, connotes brightness. When we first see him and Mattie in the same scene, she is dancing in a brightly lit hall while Ethan waits for her, hanging back in the darkness outside. When he meets her, he wishes he could "stand there with her all night in the blackness." Mattie later tells him that she first thought of going away with him while they were on on a picnic at Shadow Pond.
Darkness is symbolic of the hidden, illicit nature of their love. They cannot be open because Zeena would notice, though as it happens, darkness is Zeena's element too, and she has little difficulty in catching on to the burgeoning affair. When Zeena returns from Bettsbridge (Chapter 7), she sits in darkness in her room, the darkness underlining the habitual inexpressiveness of the Frome marriage. In contrast, when Zeena left for Bettsbridge (Chapter 4), leaving Mattie in charge, the kitchen had immediately looked "homelike" and "warm and bright."
Mattie's symbolic colors are sensual, passionate red (her scarf, and the red ribbon she weaves through her hair on her first evening alone with Ethan) and bright, flashing silver (her name). The color red has always carried connotations of sexual sin, hence terms like 'scarlet woman" (a whore or promiscuous woman) and 'red light area' (where the brothels are situated). The symbolism is continued in the red sunsets they watch together on their walks to and from the village, which he sees reflected in her face. The pickle dish that Mattie gets down for her and Ethan to use on their first evening together is red; significantly, Zeena means for it never to be used.
The 'colors' associated with Ethan's household are grey, white and black - a monochrome palette. In Chapter 1, Zeena is portrayed as lying under a "dark" quilt, her bony face grey against her white pillow. A "black wraith" of a creeper hangs by the door, reminiscent of the black streamer that people used to tie to the door as a sign that someone inside had died.
Mattie is associated with the imagery of birds: "The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches" (Chapter 2). Birds have connotations of liveliness, joyfulness and fragility. Also, they can fly, lending a much-needed freedom to the earthbound world of Ethan Frome.
After the accident, as Ethan regains consciousness, he hears "a small frightened cheep like a field mouse." This turns out to be his way of sensing Mattie's terrible pain. Again, the imagery of the small animal conveys Mattie's fragility and vulnerability, qualities that evoke a protective instinct in Ethan.
Zeena is associated with the Frome household cat. While she is away in Bettsbridge, the cat becomes her 'agent,' seating itself in her chair between Ethan and Mattie and setting the rocking chair in motion as if Zeena were there herself. Most important, the cat breaks the pickle dish that Zeena prizes above all else and that Mattie has illicitly got down from the closet to make the table attractive for Ethan. The cat thereby exposes Mattie's gesture and, symbolically, her relationship with Ethan. This episode marks a turning point for Zeena, and she resolutely acts to get rid of Mattie.
The fact that Zeena's symbolic animal is the cat reinforces the portrayal of Zeena as a type of wicked witch of fairy tale. Witches kept companion animals, or 'familiars,' and could temporarily take over the bodies of the animals in order to travel about and do their work unseen. By far the most popular 'familiar' animal for a witch was the cat.
The pickle dish
The pickle dish is the most potent symbol in the novel. The dish is Zeena's most prized possession. It was a wedding present which she has ensured is never used by placing it on the top shelf of the china closet. The fact that the dish is red, and that Zeena insists it remains unused, is symbolic of the sexual and emotional deadness of her marriage to Ethan.
However, when Zeena goes away for a day, Mattie gets down the pickle dish to make the table attractive for Ethan on their first evening together. Mattie's action is symbolic of her betrayal of Ethan and Zeena's marriage - a betrayal that we do not much blame her for, in view of the appalling nature of the Frome marriage, but that is nevertheless a transgression of society's conventions.
The fact that the cat breaks the pickle dish is significant: the cat is already symbolically linked with Zeena. Ethan feels that the shattered dish reflects Mattie's and his shattered evening together, though it can also be seen as symbolic of the marriage, which has finally broken under the stress of the relationship between Ethan and Mattie.
It is typical of Ethan that after the dish is broken, he lays together the pieces, unable to consign it to the dustbin or to confront Zeena with the truth. His aim in this deception is to calm the distraught Mattie and avoid upsetting Zeena.
Ethan's ruse fails and Zeena discovers the broken dish. She bears it carefully from the room as if it were a "dead body." In a symbolic sense, it is - it represents her dead marriage. Her hysterical response marks her first and only expression of real emotion in the novel. On one hand, it is ludicrous that she should set such store by a mere object; on the other, if we assume that Zeena is alive to the symbolism of the dish, we can interpret her grief as arising from the realization that her marriage is no more. But even if the latter is true, she continues to do nothing constructive to inject life into the marriage, and neither does she decisively end it, preferring instead to mourn uselessly over broken shards.
Landscape and setting
The narrator describes Ethan's home as "one of those lonely New England farmhouses that make the landscape lonelier." Its isolation reflects his isolation, and its delapidated condition reflects his fortunes. The shed roof sags under the weight of snow; the paint is worn; and the sawmill wheel sits idle. A "black wraith" of a creeper hangs by the door, reminiscent of the black streamers that people used to hang by the door as a sign of mourning. Most significantly, the "L" part of the house that forms the "center, the actual hearth-stone" of a New England farm, and which shelters the family from the elements on their way from the house to the cow-barn, has been demolished. The narrator sees the loss of this building as symbolic of the diminishment of Ethan himself.
The fact that the upgrade of the railroad has resulted in the farm's being "side-tracked", with little passing traffic, is a sign that life and opportunities have passed by Ethan and the community. Ethan draws a parallel between his mother's decline and the decline of the locality: ".after the trains begun running nobody ever come by here to speak of, and mother never could get it through her head what had happened, and it preyed on her right along till she died" (Author's Introductory Note).
The elm tree
Some critics see the big elm tree into which Ethan and Mattie collide in their suicide attempt as a phallic symbol. Before their suicide pact, both view the tree with awe, as they know that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum were nearly killed by colliding with it when sledding. But they talk of the tree with bravado, each claiming that they are not afraid of it. It is clear that there is a coded message being communicated. Each is feeling the other out as to whether he or she has the courage to pursue the illicit relationship. Thus the tree takes on the symbolism of their passionate (potentially sexual) but illicit (and therefore dangerous) relationship.
When the suicide pact is arranged, the elm tree becomes a symbol of the first and only resolute decision they make regarding their fate, and it is therefore reasonable to see it as suggestive of Ethan's regained manhood. However, the symbolism is ironically undermined by the fact that it is Mattie, not Ethan, who makes the decision to die together. Ethan merely goes along with what Mattie wants. The final irony is that the tree does not kill the lovers and grant them their tragic apotheosis: it cripples them, unmanning Ethan further and robbing Mattie of any chance of independence.
The metaphor of 'coasting' (sledding) is central to the novel, as it encapsulates Ethan's passive approach to life. Modern usage of the word 'coasting' reinforces this metaphor: we say that someone is 'coasting' if they are moving aimlessly through life with little effort.
While it is possible to steer a sled, sledding is essentially an activity dictated by gravity: you let go and end up where the slope takes you. Having got into the 'sled' of his marriage with Zeena, Ethan only keeps in the tracks established by other 'coasters' - the rest of conventional society - and resigns himself to his fate.
On the suicide sled run, Ethan does not attempt to steer. His 'coasting' towards the tree symbolizes his inability to take decisive action to escape his marriage and shape a future with Mattie. Even the drastic 'solution' of the suicide run was Mattie's idea, not his. He simply goes along with it. Unable to face the consequences of making a decision, he lets external factors - other people like the Hales or Zeena, society, the climate, or poverty - make decisions for him. The suicide run must appear to be particularly attractive to Ethan because it releases him from having to face the consequences of making any decisions, ever again.