Symbolic Colors in Ethan Frome Essay Example
Symbolic Colors in Ethan Frome Essay Example

Symbolic Colors in Ethan Frome Essay Example

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  • Pages: 9 (2298 words)
  • Published: April 9, 2017
  • Type: Essay
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Symbolism approach to interpretation has so many possibilities—so many paths to consider! An exciting approach to interpretation and criticism, comparable to hunting, finding the symbols, an object or image that, although interesting in its own right, stands for or suggests something larger and more complex—often an idea or a range of interrelated ideas, attitudes, and practices (Murfin & Ray 391), practiced by finding the repetition of colors throughout Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome became the adventure. Within the pages of the novel, repetition of colors reveal themselves and critic’s interpretations discussed.Symbolism The color white can have many connotations. According to the Dictionary of Literary Symbols white can symbolize “sincerity” “candor” or “faithfulness”.

White can also symbolize purity and perfectionism as well as the absolute (Mitford 106). Within the pages of Ethan Fr


ome, Wharton uses white to describe the snow as “white earth” (Wharton 13) and referring to the hills as being “white curves against the sky” (Wharton 83) and “the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke” (Wharton 30).Perhaps leading to the purity and perfectionism of the snow that decorates the New England countryside, however winter often symbolizes the harshest of seasons, that is personified as an old man, frail, cold with white hair (Ferber). Wharton also uses the color white to describe the church and its steeple—“white glimmer of the church” (Wharton 88); “slim white steeple” (Wharton 13).

In this case, I believe that the color does symbolize purity and faithfulness. In the West, black represents the color of death, mourning, and the underworld. It also has associations with evil (Mitford 106).Black can also simply represent “bad” as well as deat

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of purity and sincerity (Ferber).

Wharton uses the color black in instances that describe the character’s surroundings or attributes. For example, “clumps of bushes made black stains on it [snow]” (Wharton 13). Interpreted as the tainting of the purity that the snow represents in the serene environment Wharton created in this instance. Wharton emphasizes the color black in many instances including the following examples: “They [Mattie and Ethan] walked in silence through the blackness” (Wharton 25). In this instance, the “blackness” represents the unknown.

The two travel through the unknown because their future remains to be so but they decide to take the road together when Mattie could have just as easily taken Denis Eady up on his offer of having a ride home however she chooses Ethan. Another example within the story includes when Ethan followed his wife, Zenobia, to their bedroom after he returns from fetching Mattie at the town social, describing the room growing “perfectly black” (Wharton 30). In this instance, the blackness represents the doom that lays ahead for Ethan and his “pursuit” of Mattie. However, ambiguity can arise.

For example, when Ethan and Zeena are having a disagreement, Zeena’s face “stood grimly out against the uncurtained pane, which had turned from gray to black” (Wharton 60). Can we determine if the blackness refers to the window pane or the expression on Zeena’s face? Because if the statement refers to Zeena’s expression, lends to the fact that Zeena has some “evil” intent when it comes Ethan and Mattie. In some instances, “black” symbolizes death or impending death. For example “trees that looked black and brittle” (Wharton 74) and “black curtain of the Varnum

spruces” (Wharton 88).Trees are known to represent life, however when Wharton describes them as being brittle, it has the opposite effect. Throughout Ethan Frome, the color red attributes to Mattie Silver and the sun.

Red represents the color of life—of blood, fire, passion, and war. Red also represents danger and warning as well as the color of hellfire and damnation. However, red also has possible holy implications for Christians—often to celebrate martyrs and Christ’s Passion (Mitford 106). According to Ferber, the color red indicates in literature, fire, gold, and roses; the flush of anger or embarrassment as well as health.

In association with Ethan’s obsession, Mattie, Wharton uses the color to describe her attributes such as her “cherry coloured scarf”(Wharton 15) and “colour of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks” (Wharton 28). Wharton emphasizes her “streak of crimson ribbon” (Wharton 44). What these descriptions have in common includes that all represent the temptation and passion that Mattie represents for Ethan. Mattie description includes having “flushed red” (Wharton 45), embarrassment may be the first assumption ecause woman of Wharton’s era were often presented as being demure, however, I find that when Mattie flushes red, a juxtaposition is created between her and Ethan’s wife, Zeena, who is often presented as having a sallow pallor and having now life to her whatsoever. Mattie symbolizes life and health that Ethan desires. Gold, the literary norm for describing the sun, reflects happiness and wealth instead Wharton uses the color red—“sunrise burned red in the pure sky” (Wharton 30), “reddening in the afternoon sun” (Wharton 38), “red sun” (Wharton 74), and the “sun’s red and of the glitter on

the snow” (Wharton 31).

What does this mean? What is Wharton trying to convey? She uses the color to portray the sun at all times of the day, sunrise and sunset. When Ethan goes through life, he notices things as they pertain to him, thus, in this situation, representation of Ethan’s inner turmoil reveals itself within the environment. Ethan’s anger at the situation he found himself in, being married to a woman that represents misery and having to go through everyday having to take care of her and indulging her “sickness” or “sickly” disposition, instead of having the lively household that hoped to have early on in their relationship.Gray, another prevelant color in novel, defines symbolically, as associated with gloom and depression. However, as a balance between black and white it is the color of mediation. Gray also represents uncertainty.

In Christianity, gray symbolizes the immortality of the soul (Mitford 106). In Ethan Frome, gray describes the landscape along, for example, “elms looked gray against the snow” (Wharton 13), “open country rolled away before them grey and lonely under the stars” (Wharton 25), “cold grey dusk and made the snow look whiter” (Wharton 41), and the “gray rim of the fields” (Wharton 74).Wharton uses the color to convey the depressive state of Starkfield and of Ethan Frome. However, by describing the landscape in many instances gray, conveys a sense of uncertainity of the future for not only Ethan but also those in his life. A part of him wants to leave Zenobia and start fresh with Mattie, build a family with her, he imagines all the things he cannot have with Zeena with Mattie and uncertain

about where it leads. The color gray conveys both the uncertainty of it all and the depressive state thatEthan finds himself in, some of his own creation and as a victim of circumstance.

Yellow, less prevalent in Wharton’s novel, no less powerful. Yellow describes hair, grain,harvest, sand, dawn, the sun, and gold—often youthful disposition. However, yellow may also be a sign of disease as well as age, Metaphorically, when one has jaundice, one is jealous, envious, or bilious (Ferber). Yellow can also represent treachery, goes back to when Judas betrayed Jesus, thus betrayers identified by a yellow cloak (Mitford 106). The color yellow contains different meanings within the novel.For example, “basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations” (Wharton 13), “All its waking life was gathered behind the church windows, from which strains of dance music flowed with the board band of yellow light” (Wharton 14); reflect light and good within the confines of the church, a place of purity for the town.

However, Ethan never actually sets foot within the confines of the church, leaves this critic to wonder if that was intention on behalf of the writer. That he is unable to find the wisdom and happiness within the purity and faithfulness that the church can provide.Another instance of the use of yellow includes “wrapping her [Zeena] head in a piece of yellow flannel” (Wharton 30). When the description is made clear, two different possiblilities came to light for this critic. On one hand, Zeena is showing her age with the emphasis on the yellow wrapping causing her to appear more yellow tinted in the skin,

creating a jaundice appearance in her pale sallow skin, as her complexion describes. Further emphasizing her aging and “sickly” appearance even though she relatively young, in her mid-thirties, described as being an old woman.

Another interpretation of Zeena’s yellow headdress, lead to the belief that she had treacherous intent even before she left for Bettsbridge and found the hired girl. She sits in her silent judgments, knowing what is going on around her. With her picking up Ethan shaving every morning, the reader becomes aware of her power of observance. Wharton possibly used the yellow wrapping as a clue to Zeena’s intentions, and what can be seen as a betrayal to Ethan by taking away Mattie. Given her jaundiced appearance, could hint at Zeena’s envy of their relationship which led to unpleasantness toward Mattie and wanting her out of the house.The color blue, not used very much in the novel, establishes meaning as well.

Blue, which is the color of the sky, often interpreted as heavenly and contains connotations of serenity (Ferber). According to Mitford, blue symbolizes intellect as well the infinite. In the early Middle Ages, blue was seen as akin to darkness, so much so that an association with the dark angel of evil becomes established (Gage 57). Within the novel, the color blue shows only a few times.

Wharton refers to the sky as being “deep well of blue” (Wharton 42).At first glance, interpretation appears obvious, however, when connected to “deep well” creates a different meaning. Instead of the obvious interpretation of “heavenly” for the sky, this critic finds a different meaning, leaning more toward the infinite because deep wells appear to go

on forever. This leads to once again, the uncertainty that infinity brings. Pink, in Western traditions, represents the color of flesh and hence sensuality, can be seen as a softer tone of red, so a subtle passion, and is primarily associated with the feminine (Mitford 107).

Pink has possibilities as a combination of both white and red, thus is combined purity and lust or passion. Representation of how the female consists on contradictions. On one hand, women are expected to be pure and sincere; however, women portrayed as lustful, tempting beings by men. Within the novel, Ethan remembers an occurrence during the summer time, where Mattie wore a pink sunhat, Ethan states to Mattie “you were as pretty as a picture in that pink hat” (Wharton 84). Wharton possibly wanted to show another representation of Mattie, she spent much of the novel being identified with the color red.Another consideration to think about consists of the possibility of Ethan’s growing lust for Mattie, the pink hat was earlier in the story’s timeline, thus lending to the possibility that build up does occur.

Another shade that plays an integral role within the story is silver. Silver—seen as secondary to gold, according to Hesiod, in Works and Days, describes five races, the second race being the “silver race” described as being “much inferior, witless, and given to crime and impiety” Zeus destroyed them (Ferber).According to Plato, the silver caste is one made of auxiliaries or helpers, secondary to the gold caste, which are the rulers and those ordained by the gods, demigods. Silver, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, characterized in a pure state by its lustrous white color

and great malleability and ductility (Oxford English Dictionary). This critic found two instances of silver characterizing the environment; “the early mist had vanished and the field lay like a silver shield under the sun” (Wharton 76) and “slopes bathed in lustre, the silver edged darkness of the woods” (Wharton 74).

In this context, the snow reflects as “glittering” and appear to be silver; relates to the strength of the snow, that it will be resistant to leaving the area. Of course, Silver is Mattie’s last name. In this instance, her name gives insight to who this girl is. Mattie is referred to as Matt for much of the novel, by no accident the critic surmises. Her name, a play on words can be heard as ‘matte silver’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, matte refers to a molten mixture of impure metal suphides or oxides produced during the smelting of certain ores of copper, nickel, etc.

r a mask used to obscure or shade an image.Matte Silver refers to dull silver that needs a polish (Ferber), which gives a description of Mattie’s personality. Ethan describes the young lady by stating “[at] first she was so awkward that he could not help laughing at her; but she laughed with him and that made them better friends. He did his best to supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to light the kitchen fire, carrying in the wood overnight…” (Wharton 18).

She has a glow about her that interests Ethan without being too obvious.In summation, Wharton uses color to symbolize more than just what is on the surface. By looking at the color references, this critic

started to see things that may not have been too obvious the first read. Wharton tended to repeat her usage of color to reiterate her intentions. The novel Ethan Frome wrought with symbolism, however, can allow for one to reach for interpretations that may not be there yet focusing on one attribute causes the interpretation to lack other factors that can affect the interpretation.

Use of color also allows for the opportunity of more than one logical interpretation and changes the meaning of the book.

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