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Edith Wharton’s novel “Ethan Frome” is rich with symbolism that adds depth and complexity to the narrative. Through the use of various symbols, Wharton explores the themes of isolation, confinement, and the destructive power of societal expectations. In this informative essay, we will delve into the symbolic elements within the story and examine their significance in enhancing the reader’s understanding of the characters and their experiences.

Starkfield as a Symbol of Confinement

The town of Starkfield serves as a symbol of confinement and entrapment in the novel. Its harsh winters, barren landscape, and oppressive social norms reflect the emotional and physical imprisonment experienced by the characters, particularly Ethan Frome. The town’s relentless winter acts as a metaphor for the cold, unyielding nature of Ethan’s existence, trapping him in a loveless marriage and a life devoid of joy and fulfillment.

The Red Scarf as a Symbol of Passion

The red scarf worn by Mattie, the object of Ethan’s affection, represents passion and vitality in the story. The vibrant color contrasts with the dreary atmosphere of Starkfield, symbolizing the awakening of desire and emotional warmth that Ethan experiences in the presence of Mattie. The scarf becomes a potent symbol of the forbidden love and the potential for liberation from Ethan’s oppressive circumstances.

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The Sled as a Symbol of Escape and Tragedy

The sled, a recurring symbol throughout the novel, represents both the possibility of escape and the inevitability of tragedy. The sled initially represents freedom and joy, as Ethan and Mattie experience moments of exhilaration and connection during their night-time sled rides. However, the sled ultimately becomes a symbol of their entrapment, as the fateful sled accident leaves them physically and emotionally crippled, reinforcing the suffocating nature of their circumstances.

The Color Red as a Symbol of Forbidden Desires

The color red is employed as a symbol to represent the characters’ hidden desires and passions. It appears throughout the novel, from the red pickle dish that shatters during a pivotal moment in Ethan and Mattie’s relationship to the red ribbon in Mattie’s hair. The color red signifies the intensity of emotions and desires that are suppressed and repressed within the strict social structure of the time period, highlighting the tragic consequences of attempting to defy societal expectations.


The use of symbolism in “Ethan Frome” deepens the reader’s understanding of the characters and the oppressive environment in which they exist. Through symbols such as Starkfield, the red scarf, the sled, and the color red, Edith Wharton explores themes of confinement, passion, escape, and the consequences of forbidden desires. The symbolism adds layers of meaning to the narrative, evoking emotions and providing insight into the complex inner lives of the characters. By examining these symbols, readers gain a deeper appreciation for the profound impact of societal expectations and the desperate longing for liberation that permeates the story of “Ethan Frome.”

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