The red pickle dish represents the Frome’s marriage. The pickle dish was a wedding present for Zeena and Ethan. Zeena considered it her most prized possession, storing it away at the top of the China cabinet. Just like the stored away dish, Ethan and Zeena’s love had been put away once married. The first night Zeena is gone; Mattie takes out the plate and uses it during dinner. By defying her sister’s wishes and using the dish, Mattie unintentionally defies Zeena and Ethan’s marriage. The breaking of the dish can represent different things. According to Ethan, the broken dish represents his broken dinner plans with Mattie. A night he was excited for ended up being an average night. The breaking of the dish, however, could also represent the breaking of Zeena and Ethan’s marriage, since it was a clear symbol of their marriage. The dish broke under the weight of Ethan and Mattie’s relationship.
Ethan then attempts to hide the dish from Zeena, hiding the failure of their marriage and his feelings for Mattie. His deception failed when Zeena found the broken dish. The broken plate was basically dead to her, just like her marriage was dead. She cried at this discovery, showing her human side. Zeena seems to understand the symbolism of the dish, and she cries when she finally realizes the only thing left she loved in her marriage was broken. Instead of trying to fix the dish, Zeena only sulks over the remnants of the shattered plate. Like the plate, she does not attempt to fix her marriage either. The pickle dish becomes a clear symbol that the Frome marriage has failed under the relationship between Mattie and Ethan, and neither Ethan nor Zeena care to fix the broken marriage. Although upset, they both move on.
Ethan’s mind is being pulled in two directions and he battles between his love for Mattie and his duty to his wife. When Ethan’s mother got sick, Zeena came to help take care of her. Ethan like the feeling of companionship with someone, so when his mother died, he asked Zeena to marry him out of the fear of being alone. Ethan felt a duty to take care of Zeena when she got sick not only because she is his wife, but because she took care of his mother. Zeena, however, holds this over Ethan’s head when she wants to hire a new house maid. She attempts to guilt him into it saying he should do everything to help her since “I lost it [her health] nursing your own mother.” Ethan is both taken back and angry at her use of his mother’s death as a way to get what she wants. He does, however, fell it is his duty to help her all that he can because of these factors. Ethan, on the other hand, loves Mattie. Mattie, first of all, is actually nice to him. Unlike Zeena, Mattie likes to spend time with Ethan. She does not seclude herself to her room everyday.
Mattie and Ethan can also talk together freely and enjoy each other’s company. Mattie is his true love, but he cannot break off his marriage because he knows it is morally wrong to leave someone sick like Zeena. The meaning of the novel is the battle between duty and love. By marrying Zeena, Ethan made a promise to be by her side in sickness and in health. He promised to be with her and he feels he cannot give up her duty to Zeena for selfish reasons like love. In multiple instances, Ethan contemplated running away with Mattie, but he could not bear the thought of leaving Zeena sick and helpless. Ethan’s love for Mattie, however, cannot be controlled. He even thought about killing himself and Mattie so that they could be together, but at the last second Ethan jerks the sleigh. Subconsciously, Ethan knows this is not an appropriate thing to do. He still has a duty to Zeena. Ethan Frome focuses around the battle between a man’s duty to person and his love for someone else.