In "Ethan Frome", Wharton uses imagery to depict the ways individual expression is repressed by social constraints. "Ethan Frome", the protagonist in the tragic novel, is a victim of the social expectations. The setting for the novel, Starkfield, is bleak and barren, like the "deadness of the community". Wharton criticises the traditional conventions, which prevent Ethan from escaping from a marriage in which he has no happiness, to pursue a new life.
Ethan's marriage to the hypochondriac Zeena is Wharton's way of expressing her disapproval of the traditional conventions of the early 20th century. Zeena is portrayed as a "mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding". Zeena is symbolic of society's constraints, of the traditional conventions, which prevent Ethan from seeking a new life of his own. The lack of communication between the Frome's is the main reason their marriage failed.
Wharton shows how people were repressed in her society by their marriages. Ethan sought to escape through his fantasies and illusions. He dreams of escape with Mattie, but is unable to do so due to his lack of financial means, and the ever-present malingering Zeena.
Wharton uses the broken pickle dish as a symbol of Zeena and her marriage. Like the dish which was tucked away uselessly in the dark, Zeena prefers never to take a part in life. The broken dish symbolises the Frome's broken marriage, which was not salvageable. It is ironic that Zeena treasured the symbol of their marriage, but not the marriage itself.
Wharton challenges the sanctity of marriage and expresses that marriage can be a mistake by portraying a young man who is trapped in a marriage with a woman he does not love, and is unable to escape by running away with...