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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Motifs



The color red is mentioned regularly in the novella, and it is one of the only colors named aside from the bleak gray and white backdrop. The motif of the color red evokes passion and seduction. Mattie often wears red—a ribbon in her hair, a scarf, a fascinator—which makes her stand out against the white background, drawing seductive eyes (Ethan's and Denis's) her way. In particular she wears a crimson hair ribbon on the night of her private dinner. Whenever Ethan thinks of Mattie and compares her to the sun (his light, his hope), the sunset is always red. The pickle dish, the symbol of Ethan's shattered marriage resulting from his passion for Mattie, is also red. Finally Ethan's face which is scarred from the accident and the illicit relationship that led to it is forever marked red.


Ethan's life is defined by his role as a caretaker. He cares for his sick mother, his hypochondriac of a wife, Zeena, and eventually Mattie, who all have unique disabilities. Ethan, too, becomes disfigured after the sledding accident. Sickness and disability predominate Ethan's life.

In many ways these exterior illnesses and disabilities are manifestations of the characters' inner lives. Zeena and Ethan are trapped in a loveless marriage, and Ethan is nostalgic for the life he might have had. Mattie's well-being is dependent on the good will of others because she lacks the social status to care for herself. These states of inner deterioration become manifest in the characters' physical lives.


Freezing temperatures, snow, and white landscapes create a bleak backdrop for Ethan's life. Having "been in Starkfield too many winters," the cold has penetrated Ethan's bones and frozen him in place. Regardless of his past dream of being an engineer in a big city or his current dream of running away with Mattie, the environment has sabotaged Ethan's sensitive spirit, rendering him incapable of movement. The cold starkness of winter becomes Ethan's fate as he remains trapped in Starkfield by his poverty, his loveless marriage, and the physical disfigurement of his body.

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