Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Ethan and those individuals close to him, including (by the end of the novel) Mattie, suffer from sickness or disability. Caring for the sick and the lame defines Ethan’s life. He spends the years before the novel begins tending to his ailing mother, and then he has to care for his hypochondriacal wife, Zeena. Finally, after his and Mattie’s attempted suicides, Ethan is forced to spend the rest of his days disfigured, living with a sick wife and the handicapped Mattie. Outward physical signs reflect inner realities in Ethan Frome, and the predominance of illness in the characters’ physical states indicates that, inwardly, they are all in states of destitution and decline.
The imagery of Ethan Frome is built around cold, ice and snow, and hues of white. The characters constantly complain about the cold, and the climactic scene hinges on the use of a winter sport—sledding—as a means of suicide. These motifs work to emphasize the novel’s larger theme of winter as a physically and psychologically stifling force. Like the narrator, we initially find beauty in the drifts, flakes, and icicles. Eventually, however, the unremittingly wintry imagery becomes overwhelming and oppressive, as the overall tone and outlook of the book become increasingly bleak. The cumulative effect is to make the reader feel by the end of the novel that, like Ethan himself, we have “been in Starkfield too many winters.”