Throughout Ethan Frome, author Edith Wharton uses red as a symbol of the passion Ethan longs for but never receives. Red is the color of blood, ruddiness, good health, and liveliness. Zeena, Ethan's wife, has none of these qualities, yet Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin, has all of them. In the harsh white landscape of Starkfield, red stands out just as Mattie stands out in the harsh landscape of Ethan's life.
Ethan looks on as " a girl who had already wound a cherry-coloured "fascinator" about her head, and, leading her up to the end of the floor, whirled her down its length to the bounding tune of a Virginia reel"(16). The cherry-colored fascinator symbolizes the exhilarating time these young people who are dancing are having as Ethan stares on in his sad, grey world. He wants to go out there and dance, but his life is different from theirs. "Frome's heart was beating fast. He had been straining for a glimpse of the dark head under the cherry-coloured-scarf and it vexed another eye should have been quicker than his"(16). Here we see the scarf as a wall between these two people. The mere sight of the young woman's face enlivens Ethan.
Fire is used as a symbol of the passion and life that Mattie Silver will try to bring into Ethan's life. "But it was not only that the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth"(17). .
In this scene, Ethan remembers the moments and thoughts him and Mattie share. "The cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow"(18). The red sunset represents the beauty of their love, and the secret mental fervent romance they share.
After a romantic walk home, Ethan and Mattie walk up to the Frome house with their arms locked together, and smiles on their faces. Suddenly, Zeena opens the door to see the two of them sharing a pleasant moment together, and at that moment, Mattie enters the home, and removes her red scarf.