by Edith Wharton
Dead Cucumber Vines, Crepe Streamers, and Other Symbols of Death
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Ethan Frome is loaded with symbols of death. We thought the dead cucumber vine was a pretty good one:
A dead cucumber-vine dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death, and the thought flashed through Ethan's brain: "If it was there for Zeena-" (2.58)
Ethan just wished his wife were dead. Did this make you think Zeena was going to die? It did us. At first, we even though Ethan might murder Zeena.
The red dish is another symbol of death, though not necessarily physical. The red pickle dish was a wedding present to Zeena and Ethan, and was shattered during a romantic dinner between Ethan and another Mattie. The broken dish symbolizes for Zeena the death of their marriage, and for Mattie and Ethan possibly a warning that something else is about to shatter – like Ethan and Mattie's bodies. We are told that Zeena picked "up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body..." (7.127). This definitely makes us think someone is going to die.
If all of these death references still haven't convinced you, we also have actual graves. Ethan's ancestors, including his namesake, are buried right there on his property, and Ethan sees them everyday.
As you can see from our discussion so far, there is lots of foreshadowing of death in Ethan Frome. But the joke is on us. The foreshadowing doesn't foreshadow literal death, but rather the death of any dreams, hopes, and plans for the future that Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena might have had.