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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Symbols


The Pickle Dish

The pickle dish symbolizes Ethan and Zeena's marriage. They received it from family in Philadelphia, so Zeena views it as rare and valuable—just as rare and valuable, it seems, as finding an honest partner to care for you throughout years of debilitating sickness. Mattie and Ethan use the pickle dish without Zeena's consent during their private dinner, much in the same way that they flirt behind Zeena's back. Both the pickle dish and Ethan's marriage are handled indelicately and are broken beyond repair. When Zeena discovers the broken dish, she is devastated. Because she isn't a sympathetic character, the reader assumes Zeena is upset because an expensive dish was ruined, but it's also likely she grieves the shattered dish because she cannot openly grieve her shattered marriage. By making the cat, a stand-in for Zeena during the dinner scene, responsible for breaking the dish Wharton assigns some of the guilt to her, asserting that manipulative Zeena also plays a part in her fractured marriage.

The Sledding Run

Ethan's struggles greatly with decisions. Although limited by his poverty and circumstances, he "coasts" through his limited life in unhappiness and frustration. During the final sledding run Ethan must relinquish control and submit to the force of gravity as an immovable force. Unfortunately Ethan is unable to fully carry through and botches the run. At the last moment he flinches, causing the sled to crash in a way that horrifically injures Mattie and himself. Throughout the novella Ethan has had to face the consequences of his decisions: returning home, marrying Zeena, eloping with Mattie. He leaves school to care for his parents, stays married to Zeena even though he hates her, and refuses to elope with Mattie, realizing he cannot do it. Refusing to be pulled under by Ethan's doubts, Mattie makes the definitive decision to commit suicide, literally dragging him up the hill with her. Ethan's hesitation in the final sledding run forces everyone in his life—including Mattie and Zeena—to deal with the consequences forever.

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