Morals Versus Desire Essay

957 words - 4 pages

Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome, successfully uses symbolism as a tactic to drive her intended themes home. One prominent theme throughout the novel is morals and conforming to societal standards conflicting with one’s desires that diverge from the status quo. Wharton’s symbols in Ethan Frome strongly support the theme of morals versus desire through emphasizing the gap between the two.

Initially, Wharton uses the red pickle dish to represent what is left of the love and vitality in Ethan and Zeena’s marriage; but after the dish has been broken by the cat, it symbolizes the destruction of their marriage. The cat destroying the dish is also significant because the cat represents Zeena's constant, foreboding presence inside the house. The cat being the one to blame for the breaking of the dish also means Zeena being the blame for the failure of the marriage, but in reality Ethan is to blame for the dish falling as the cat likely would not have knocked over the dish if his hand had not lingered on top of Mattie’s. Ethan’s feelings also begin to grow stronger for Mattie after the dish breaks because not only did it represent the marriage’s failure, but diminished the morals that come along with marriage. Eventually, Zeena finds the broken pieces of the dish that Ethan had hidden and though “her lips were twitching with anger” there was also “a flush of excitement on her sallow face” (109). Zeena expresses excitement because now it is not only her contributing to the failure of the marriage. But her anger shines through in the end despite her dissatisfaction in the relationship, because society’s reaction to the end of her marriage would be far more devastating than the emotional pain. The red pickle dish in itself represents the vitality and love within Ethan and Zeena’s marriage being overcome by desire, but when the color red stands alone it stands for something as a whole.

Above all, the color red in Ethan Frome stands out from the dull surroundings and symbolizes the passion, vitality and desires that lie within Mattie, nature and Ethan and Mattie’s relationship. The first time the color red is mentioned, the narrator refers to the gash across Ethan’s forehead. This gash foreshadows the instance where Mattie and Ethan allow desire to drive their decisions and attempt to end their lives. In the end they are severely injured, leaving Ethan mangled with this wound. The scar is specifically identified as red to represent that Ethan received it because of his desires and now it is one of the first things society notices about him. Similar to how Puritans had to wear a scarlet letter not only to be isolated by society but also reminded of their sin; this is Ethan’s scarlet letter. Red is also used to perpetuate the...

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