The most important symbol used by Wharton in Ethan Frome is the use of the color red in describing Mattie. The red clothing is specifically emphasized on the two occasions where Ethan and Mattie are alone together without Zeena. When they are together after the dance, Mattie is wearing a red scarf, and when Zeena is out of town visiting a new doctor, Mattie puts a red ribbon in her hair for dinner. The significance in these small red accessories lies in what they symbolize. Red is often considered to be the color of life and vitality, and Ethan sees the freshness of youth and ruddiness emanating from Mattie’s being. Ethan feels that, “The coming to his house of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth” (23). Additionally, a few pages later while Ethan is still in a “rosy haze”, the engineer compares, “Mattie came forward, unwinding her wraps, the color of her cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks” (33). This simile and metaphor are the reason that Ethan is so attracted to Mattie, and thus lays down the foundation for the overall plot of the story. Ethan is stuck in a loveless marriage with someone who is just as stark as Starkfield itself. Mattie’s red accessories literally stand out against the scene of Starkfield: depressing, unrelenting whiteness. This is also symbolic of Ethan’s life, as Mattie is the happiness standing out in Ethan’s otherwise depressing, unrelenting life.
During the period when Zeena is out of town and Mattie and Ethan are left alone together at home, the house, which is typically described as cold and desolate is contrastingly “warm and bright.” “It was surprising what a homelike look the mere fact of Zeena’s absence gave it” (40). Furthermore, Mattie is again heartily described with her all of her red attributes. “Then, striking upward, it threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness above the black curve of her brows” (46). One page later, the description continues, “There was no bow at her neck; but through her hair she had run a streak of crimson ribbon. This tribute to the unusual transformed and glorified her. She seemed to Ethan taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion.” As is shown here, this one little addition completely augments Ethan’s perception of her for the better. His love for her is being catalyzed by the symbolism of the crimson ribbon.
On the other hand, for everything that someone views as positive, someone else will view it as negative. Such is the case for the red symbols. Whereas Ethan sees them as fruitful, Zeena sees Mattie’s red youthfulness as a representation of infidelity and sin, which explains why she wants to get rid of Mattie (in order to not have her husband fall in love with another woman). This is especially true because of the novel’s setting in New England, where red was looked upon more as the color of the devil than anything else. A perfect example of this is The Scarlet Letter, where Hester’s crimson “A” was a symbol of her transgression.
As a result of this red symbolism, the story is able to develop and eventually leads to the demise of both of the young lovers. Happiness and a sense of blossoming youth are radiated by Mattie through her red clothing accessories (the ribbon and the scarf) as well as by her body (her lips and cheeks). As can be seen, the color red is a decidedly important symbol Wharton uses in Ethan Frome.