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School of the Nations IGCSE Literature

Figurative Language, Symbols, Themes

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Figurative Language, Symbols, Themes

Figurative Language

Wharton establishes patterns of imagery by using figurative language — language meant to be taken figuratively as well as literally. In Ethan Frome, Wharton's descriptive imagery is one of the most important features of her simple and efficient prose style. Her descriptions serve a definite stylistic and structural purpose. The figurative language used by Wharton includes metaphors and similes. Metaphors compare two unlike things without using words of comparison (such as like or as). For example, in the beginning of the novel, Wharton gives readers the feeling of the bitterness and hardness of the winter by setting the constellation, Orion, in a "sky of iron." When Ethan and Mattie enter the Frome household after walking home, the kitchen has "the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night." This image is appropriate to the living death that Ethan and Mattie experience in the years after their accident. Their lives do become cold and dead. The imagery associated with Zeena is bleak and cold also. When Ethan sees her before her trip to Bettsbridge, she sits in "the pale light reflected from the banks of snow," which makes "her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless." In contrast, the imagery associated with Mattie is associated with summer and natural life. 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. 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. Wharton describes the moment when "her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw." The dead cucumber vine at the Frome farmhouse looks "like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death." And, when Zeena tells Ethan that she should have sent Mattie away long ago because people were "talking," the effect of her comment on Ethan is "like a knife-cut across the sinews. . . . " As Mattie and Ethan approach their crippling accident, darkness prevails over the imagery. Darkness comes, "dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs." The black veil causes the reader to think of a funeral. Such figurative language evokes vivid images that reveal characterization and reinforce Wharton's themes.


Symbols

Symbols in Ethan Frome enrich the themes found in the novel as well as Wharton's characterizations. 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.

The most important use of symbolic imagery in Ethan Frome is the winter setting, which is first described in the prologue and is carried throughout the main story. Harmon Gow's assessment of Ethan Frome early in the prologue is that he has endured too many Starkfield winters. From that point on, winter presides over the tragedy in all its manifestations of snow, ice, wind, cold, darkness, and death. The Narrator speculates that the winters in Ethan's past must have brought about a suppression of life and spirit. Winter is also symbolic of the isolation, loneliness, and immobility that Ethan experiences.

The name of the town, Starkfield, symbolizes the devastating and isolating effects of the harsh winters on the land and the men who work the land. 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. The image of the butterfly, which has defied the cold and death of winter symbolizes freedom; freedom that Ethan is unable to attain because he is trapped in a loveless marriage. The cushion that Ethan throws across his study is the only cushion that Zeena ever made for him. Throwing it across the floor symbolizes his growing rejection of Zeena and his desire to run away with Mattie. Ethan thinks Mattie's hair is one of her most beautiful features; it is symbolic of her free, happy, and open personality. 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.

 

Themes

Major themes in Ethan Frome include silence, isolation, illusion, and the consequences that are the result of living according to the rules of society. Wharton relies on personal experiences to relate her thematic messages. Throughout her life as a writer, Wharton would schedule the time that she wrote around social engagements and she did not readily discuss her writing. As a result, she was familiar with silence and isolation. The rules of society did not condone a woman who was a member of the upper class working, much less as a professional writer. Societal rules also frowned upon divorce. Wharton lived in a loveless marriage for years before she took a risk and divorced Teddy Wharton, her husband for almost thirty years.

Throughout the novel Wharton focuses on silence as a major theme. In the introduction, the author describes her characters as "granite outcroppings . . . half emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate." Each of the three major characters is encased in his/her own silence. Ethan, a quiet man by nature, returns to Starkfield following the death of his father to run the family farm and sawmill. Because he is too busy working to make small talk with the villagers and his sick mother stops speaking, Ethan becomes imprisoned in a "mortal silence." He experiences a brief reprieve when Zeena arrives to care for his mother; but after his mother's death and his subsequent marriage to Zeena, Zeena falls silent also. Communication between the couple is minimal and superficial. After Mattie's arrival, Zeena forces a smothering silence on her also with her "fault-finding (that is) of the silent kind." Ethan is able to share his passion for the wonders of nature with Mattie; however, when conversation takes a turn towards intimacy, silence returns and all Ethan can say is, "Come along." The characters are unable to communicate with each other to dispel their own loneliness. It isn't until Zeena forces Mattie to leave the Frome household that Ethan and Mattie express their feelings for each other. They abandon rational thought as they attempt to commit suicide and enter a silent hell in which the only verbal communication to be heard is Zeena and Mattie's complaining.


Isolation, another major theme in the novel, is not self-imposed before the tragedy that befalls Mattie and Ethan, but is enforced upon them by outside circumstances. Ethan tried to escape the isolation of Starkfield and his father's farm by going off to the technological college at Worcester. He began to cultivate his own social traits and to overcome his reticence; however, his father's death forced him to give up college and return to the farm and his ill mother. After his marriage to Zeena, Ethan is imprisoned by the farm, millwork, and caring for Zeena. He is physically isolated from the world at large and is also cut off from the possibility of any human fellowship that life in a village might afford.

Mattie and Zeena are isolated characters also. Mattie is isolated by the deaths of both parents and the ill will of most of her relatives. She moves to the Fromes', an unfamiliar farmhouse and, except for church socials, is cut off from contact with human beings other than the Fromes. Because Zeena is consumed by her many illnesses, she rarely leaves the farmhouse, and only speaks to Ethan and Mattie when voicing her complaints or demands. Because the attempted escape from isolation by Ethan and Mattie fails tragically, Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena are left to spend their lives in an isolation even more complete than that from which they tried to flee.

Illusion, a false interpretation or perception, is an important theme in the novel. Illusion affords each of the three main characters a means of escape from the reality of the silent and isolated lives they lead. Ethan would " . . . imagine that peace reigned in his house" when Zeena stopped watching Mattie so closely after her arrival. He wants to believe that Mattie's smiles and certain gestures are just for him. Ethan dreams of being with Mattie always; in fact, "he was never so happy with her (Mattie) as when he abandoned himself to these dreams." The night that Zeena went to Bettsbridge, Ethan imagines them (Mattie and himself) sitting "on each side of the stove, like a married couple." When Zeena insists that Mattie leave their household, Ethan tries to convince himself that Zeena will change her mind. His illusion about running away with Mattie fizzles when he faces reality — he cannot afford one ticket, much less two.

Mattie dreams of spending her life with Ethan. Ironically, her illusion becomes a reality. She does spend her life with Ethan, but as an invalid cared for by Zeena, not as Ethan's wife, as she had imagined.

Zeena's illusions are unhealthy. Her hypochondria enables her to escape into self-pity and self-indulgence. The smash-up forces her to abandon her illusions of withdrawing from all her household responsibilities through the device of a hired housekeeper.

The imprisonment experienced by an individual living according to the rules of society is a major theme in Ethan Frome. The message that Wharton conveys through Ethan is that when people fear they are violating the rules of society, they risk becoming enslaved by those rules. Ethan doesn't leave his wife because he feels bound by his marriage vows. He dreams about being married to Mattie; however, even as he writes his goodbye letter to Zeena, and subsequently talks to Mrs. Hale, his conscience does not allow him to follow through with his wishes. Instead, the rules of society rule his life and he remains entrapped in a loveless marriage

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