16 January 2008
A Stark Contrast
When facing a desolate winter, retreating to the corners of one’s mind comes easily, particularly when living an isolated life on the outskirts of town, as Ethan does in Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. Wharton uses characters and symbols to illustrate how one uses illusion to cope with isolation. Ethan’s role outside society becomes apparent throughout the novel, mostly in his relationships with others; through symbols, Wharton shows how society manipulates individuals’ solitude.
Wharton frequently uses veils throughout the novel as a symbol of illusion and isolation; they separate, and also hide and conceal. She uses a metaphorical veil to separate Ethan from the dance hall, “Seen thus, from the pure and frosty darkness in which he stood, it seemed to be seething in a mist of heat.” (25). Although a literal wall exists between them, the understood veil of society’s expectations, Ethan and Mattie’s different places, also keep them apart. While riding with Ethan the narrator also experiences the differing roles he and Ethan have in society, “As we turned into the Corbury road, the snow began to fall again, cutting off our last glimpse of the house; and Frome's silence fell with it, letting down between us the old veil of reticence.” (19). The narrator refers to the veil as old and unspoken of, indicating the men keep their affairs to themselves, and improper for them to do otherwise. The veil symbolizes Ethan’s separation, and alludes that the commonplace isolation is often unmentioned.
Wharton creates Ethan’s silent and withdrawn lifestyle as a symbol of isolation, while Mattie’s bright personality represents society. The young Mattie, with “the color of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks” (48) is warm and vibrant. Her liveliness reflects society’s view of an ideal girl: good-natured, attractive, and agreeable. Mattie...