Wharton establishes patterns of imagery by using figurative language — language meant to be taken figuratively as well as literally. In Ethan Frome, Wharton's descriptive imagery is one of the most important features of her simple and efficient prose style. Her descriptions serve a definite stylistic and structural purpose. The figurative language used by Wharton includes metaphors and similes. Metaphors compare two unlike things without using words of comparison (such as like or as). For example, in the beginning of the novel, Wharton gives readers the feeling of the bitterness and hardness of the winter by setting the constellation, Orion, in a "sky of iron." When Ethan and Mattie enter the Frome household after walking home, the kitchen has "the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night." This image is appropriate to the living death that Ethan and Mattie experience in the years after their accident. Their lives do become cold and dead. The imagery associated with Zeena is bleak and cold also. When Ethan sees her before her trip to Bettsbridge, she sits in "the pale light reflected from the banks of snow," which makes "her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless." In contrast, the imagery associated with Mattie is associated with summer and natural life. Mattie's change in mood reminds Ethan of "the flit of a bird in the branches" and he feels that walking with her is similar to "floating on a summer stream." Later in the novel, when Ethan goes downstairs to tell Mattie that she will have to leave their house, their conversation has the effect of "a torch of warning" in a "black landscape."
Similes, comparisons of two unlike things that use words of comparison such as like or as, are direct comparisons that Wharton uses throughout the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Ethan's perception of Mattie's face is "like a window that has caught the sunset," and later, he thinks her face seems "like a wheat field under a summer breeze." As Ethan and Mattie walk home from the dance, Ethan reveals to Mattie that he had been hiding while she talked to Denis Eady. Wharton describes the moment when "her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw." The dead cucumber vine at the Frome farmhouse looks "like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death." And, when Zeena tells Ethan that she should have sent Mattie away long ago because people were "talking," the effect of her comment on Ethan is "like a knife-cut across the sinews. . . . " As Mattie and Ethan approach their crippling accident, darkness prevails over the imagery. Darkness comes, "dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs." The black veil causes the reader to think of a funeral. Such figurative language evokes vivid images that reveal characterization and reinforce Wharton's themes.
Symbols in Ethan Frome enrich the themes found in the novel as well as Wharton's characterizations. A symbol functions literally as a concrete object and figuratively as a representation of an idea. Symbols allow writers to compress complicated ideas or views into an image or word.
The most important use of symbolic imagery in Ethan Frome is the winter setting, which is first described in the prologue and is carried throughout the main story. Harmon Gow's assessment of Ethan Frome early in the prologue is that he has endured too many Starkfield winters. From that point on, winter presides over the tragedy in all its manifestations of snow, ice, wind, cold, darkness, and death. The Narrator speculates that the winters in Ethan's past must have brought about a suppression of life and spirit. Winter is also symbolic of the isolation, loneliness, and immobility that Ethan experiences.
The name of the town, Starkfield, symbolizes the devastating and isolating effects of the harsh winters on the land and the men who work the land. The name is also symbolic of the stark and carefully composed prose Wharton used to write the story.
Other symbols include the dead vine on the front porch of Fromes' farmhouse that symbolizes the dead and dying spirits that inhabit the house and its adjacent graveyard, the farmhouse itself that has lost the "L" seems to be symbolic of Ethan (the house looks "forlorn" and "lonely"), it stands alone without support — isolated and lonely. The image of the butterfly, which has defied the cold and death of winter symbolizes freedom; freedom that Ethan is unable to attain because he is trapped in a loveless marriage. The cushion that Ethan throws across his study is the only cushion that Zeena ever made for him. Throwing it across the floor symbolizes his growing rejection of Zeena and his desire to run away with Mattie. Ethan thinks Mattie's hair is one of her most beautiful features; it is symbolic of her free, happy, and open personality. Zeena's hair, on the other hand, is always unattractively crimped and confined with pins, just as her personality seems pinched and constrained. The symbolic use of Mattie's hair is more important at the climax of the novel, when it represents beauty and love, to which Ethan is willing to give his love — but can't.
The symbols used by Wharton in Ethan Frome reinforce the themes of silence, isolation, and entrapment; feelings that Ethan experiences in his marriage.