In novels, such as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, imagery and theme play a large role in developing the novel and bringing it to the status of a ‘Classic.’ An author’s use of imagery gives the reader an idea of the novel’s characters and setting. It helps to advance the reader’s understanding of the novel and its theme. The theme of a novel is also an important aspect that one must consider in order to have a clear understanding of the purpose, or central idea of the novel. Edith Wharton employs both positive and negative images of Starkfield and its inhabitants to enhance the overall theme of Ethan Frome.
The imagery of a novel is a key factor in elaborating upon the light-hearted and carefree elements, as opposed to the dark and immoral components of the setting in which the novel takes place. For example, imagery can be used in a likable manner to achieve the desired affect of making the reader enjoy and love the setting so that the theme may be elevated. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Wharton first presents Starkfield as a cheery uplifting town saying, ‘The winter morning was clear as a crystal. The sunrise burned red in a pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue, and beyond the white scintillating fields of far-off forest hung like smoke.’(pg.41) It also seems that whenever Mattie is around, Ethan’s view of the world improves. This is shown on his walk home from the church social with Mattie when the narration states, ‘The night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle beneath their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and Mattie shrank closer to Ethan . . .’(pg.35) Much the opposite, imagery can be used to make the reader dislike a certain setting in order to further the theme of the novel. The use of the wind and the snow in Starkfield help to place a label of despair on the town. The narrator says, ‘The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.’(pg.13) Even the town’s name, Starkfield, suggests a dull and gloomy place where one would seldom consider a nice place to settle down. To sum it up, the lighter images in a novel can be used hand-in-hand with the darker one’s so that the setting may be developed beyond normal parameters.
Imagery can also help the characterization in a novel; whether the character is portrayed as a pleasant, favorable person or a disliked and despised member of society. Imagery, like characterization, can be used to make the reader favor a certain character and feel connected to that character which in turn develops the overall theme of the novel. Whenever Ethan was with Mattie, he noticed all of the wonderful things about her. When he went to the church social to pick her up he saw, ‘. . . a girl who already wound a cherry-coloured ‘fascinator’ about her head.’(pg.21) He also noticed ‘ . . . the steam from the hot water beading her forehead and tightening her rough hair into little brown rings like the tendrils on the traveller’s joy.’(pg.72) On the other hand, imagery can be used to make the reader dislike the same character which can help to advance the theme. Usually, in Ethan Frome, the negative imagery was used in association with Ethan’s wife, Zeena. The narrator says, ‘His wife looked so hard and lonely, sitting there in the darkness . . .’(pg.78) When Zeena explains to Ethan that a new serving girl will be sent for, Ethan sees Zeena as ‘. . . no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent