Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 1
We flash back to twenty-four years ago. It is midnight and once again, the village is under snow. Ethan Frome is walking along the quiet streets. Four or five years earlier he had taken a course at a technical college, but his studies had been broken off by his father’s death and the misfortunes that followed it.
Ethan stops in front of the church, where a dance is in progress. He peers in through the window, careful to stay unseen. His gaze is drawn to a girl with a cherry-colored scarf around her head, dancing with a young man. We learn that her dance partner is Denis Eady, son of Michael Eady, a successful Irish grocer. Ethan is angry at Eady’s show of ownership over the girl. We then learn that the girl is Mattie Silver, the daughter of Ethan’s wife’s cousin. Mattie came to live with the Fromes a year ago as home help to the sickly Zeena. Zeena wants Mattie to go to such events as the dance in order to offset the isolation of the Starkfield farm. Mattie is unpaid, or (Ethan reflects) Zeena would not have been so considerate.
At first, Ethan resented having to accompany Mattie the two miles into the village and back, but now he wishes that he did it every night. He delights in their walks to and from the village, and her presence heightens his already sensitive appreciation of the natural beauty around him. He is able to talk to her of the constellations and how the ice age formed the landscape around them, and she responds with wonder. Now, he feels unhappy that she is lifting the same joyful face to her dance partners as she lifts to him. He also worries because Zeena is complaining at Mattie’s inefficiency with the housework. Ethan had started to neglect the farm so that he could help her around the house. One night, he had come downstairs to scrub the kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed, and Zeena had caught him, and given him one of her silent “queer looks.”
Zeena had shown other signs of disquiet about Mattie. One morning, she had told Ethan that the doctor said she should not be left without someone to do the housework for her. Ethan had asked what she meant. Zeena had said that Mattie would probably marry soon and leave them. Ethan had replied that she would not leave as long as Zeena needed her, but Zeena had said that she would not stand in the way of Mattie marrying a “smart fellow” like Denis Eady. Zeena had said that the doctor has recommended a girl to replace Mattie. Ethan had told her he could not discuss it now, as he was late for work. Zeena makes a sly remark to the effect that this is because he now shaves daily, implying that he is doing so for Mattie. Ethan had recognized this as a hostile “thrust,” and had realised that Zeena may have guessed his feelings for Mattie.
While during his conversation with Zeena he had not been worried by her reference to Denis Eady, now that he is standing outside the church watching Mattie dance with Denis, he feels disturbed.
Chapter 1 Analysis
The fact that Ethan’s studies at college had been sufficient to make him “aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things” but not sufficient to be of any practical use is typical of the state of limbo, or half-life in which Ethan exists.
Mattie Silver, whom we first see dancing with a cherry-colored scarf around her hair, represents a vivid streak of life and sensuality in his monochrome, frigid, monotonous existence: “.the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.” The color symbolism is continued in the red sunsets they watch together on their walks to and from the village, which he sees reflected in her face.
The contrast between Mattie and Zeena is clear at our first sight of Zeena. One cold winter morning, as Ethan dresses in the dark, Zeena’s “flat whine” comes spookily out of the gloom from the bed behind him. Her first words, “The doctor don’t want I should be left without anybody to do for me,” indirectly tells us much about her. We see that she has become used to the invalid life, that she wishes it to continue, and that she expects others to support her. We also see her manipulative nature in the way she places her own wishes in the authoritative mouth of the doctor and her assumption that Mattie will leave. In fact, she already engineering Mattie’s departure, but she speaks of it as Mattie’s own desire, for the ostensible reason that she will undoubtedly want to marry. Zeena’s comment also has a deeper resonance: it suggests that on some level she fears that Ethan and Mattie will run off together and leave her alone.
The contrast between the women is reflected in the color symbolism. While Mattie’s symbolic colors are passionate red (her scarf) and flashing silver (her name), those associated with Ethan’s dismal household are grey, white and black – a monochrome palette. Zeena is portrayed as lying under a “dark” quilt, her bony face grey against her white pillow.
Zeena displays her slyness in her indirect remarks to her husband. Ostensibly talking about his habitual lateness arriving at work, she points out that it might be due to the fact that he shaves every day now. He recognizes this as a hostile “thrust”, implying that he is prettying himself up for Mattie. He is surprised, as he thought that she was always asleep when he left for work. The impression we gain of Zeena is that of a silent, sinister watcher who is not straightforward about her intentions and motives.
Mattie and Ethan are also contrasted, through the imagery of light and dark that permeates the novel. Mattie is portrayed in terms of life-giving light and warmth, Ethan in terms of death-like darkness and cold. When he is waiting outside in the cold for Mattie to emerge from the warm, bright dance hall, he retreats into the “darkness” and “shadows.”
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 2
As the dancers pour out of the hall, Ethan shyly draws back out of their sight. Even when Mattie comes out and looks around for him, he does not come forward, although in general, her expressiveness and freedom spreads to him. Denis Eady approaches and asks Mattie if her “gentleman friend” has failed to turn up. He offers to take her for a ride in his father’s cutter (a horse-drawn sleigh). Ethan still hangs back, wanting to know whether Mattie will accept Eady’s offer. Mattie politely declines and sets off towards home on foot.
Ethan is happy that Mattie has not gone with Denis Eady. He catches up with her under the Varnums’ spruce trees and asks her why, if she thought he hadn’t come, she didn’t go with Denis. Surprised that he knows about Denis’s invitation, she laughs delightedly at his sudden appearance. They link arms and walk home together. On the way, they look at the “coasting” slope, where people go sledding. He tells her that they can go sledding the following night if there is a moon. She says that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, a young engaged couple, had gone sledding and had nearly collided with the big elm tree at the bottom of the slope. She and the others present thought they had been killed. Ethan points out that Ned is no good at steering, whereas he himself could take her down safely.
Ethan wants to know Mattie’s feelings about Denis Eady, but cannot ask her directly. Instead, he comments that it is natural that she should leave his household (to marry Denis). Mattie fears that he really means that Zeena is dissatisfied with her work and is planning to fire her. Mattie says she wishes Zeena would openly tell her what is wrong with her work, so that she can learn to do better. She wonders if Ethan also wishes her to go. Though this is far from Ethan’s intentions, he cannot tell her his feelings. He only tells Mattie that he and Zeena mean for her never to leave. He muses silently that his dead ancestors who failed to get away and were buried on the farm will conspire with him to keep Mattie there.
As they approach the house, he notices the dead vine hanging from the porch like one of the crepe streamers that were traditionally displayed by the door of a house in mourning. He wonders what would happen if it were there to mark Zeena’s death.
Zeena usually leaves a key under the doormat for them when they come home late from the village, but tonight, Ethan cannot find it. He has a wild momentary fantasy that tramps may have been there – his unspoken implication being that they may have killed Zeena. While he is on his knees looking for the key, the door opens and he sees his wife. Zeena explains that she felt too ill to sleep. She holds up a lamp to light their way into the house and up the stairs. Ethan is reluctant to let Mattie see him follow Zeena into their bedroom, and says he will stay downstairs to do his accounts. Zeena points out that it is too cold. Ethan fancies that he sees a look of warning flash across Mattie’s face. He agrees with Zeena and obediently follows her upstairs.
Chapter 2 Analysis
During their walk home from the dance, Ethan muses on the possibility of being with Mattie forever on the farm. He feels that all the dead Frome ancestors who failed to get away and were buried on the farm will conspire with him to keep Mattie there. It is a sinister image when applied to the lively Mattie, suggesting that the repression and death that marks Ethan’s life will overtake her and imprison her.
Because we know from the Author’s Introductory Note that Ethan ends up crippled, the conversation between him and Mattie at the coasting slope about Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum’s narrow escape from death appears to be a foreshadowing of their own fate. This lends the entire story the weight of foreboding and a tragic inevitability.
Zeena’s failure to leave a key for Ethan and Mattie and her waiting up for them is another suggestion that she intuits that something illicit is going on between them. Zeena blames her illness for the fact that she is still up, another example of how she uses her status as an invalid to manipulate and retain control over others.
The contrast between Zeena and Mattie is reinforced by the descriptions of Zeena’s gaunt face, puckered throat, flat breast and projecting bones, as against Mattie’s fresh and rosy-cheeked beauty. As far as character is concerned, Zeena is portrayed as a complaining old crone, sharp-eyed and mean-tongued, and with one foot firmly planted in the grave, whereas Mattie is vigorous, beautiful and delights in life. Ethan is caught between the two worlds of life and death: in love with the vital Mattie, but married to the deathly Zeena. He retains enough vitality himself to be invigorated by Mattie’s company and dreams of escaping his dead marriage to live with her. But it is hardly a hopeful sign that one of the ways he sees this happening, in his romantic fantasies, is for his dead ancestors to join with him in keeping Mattie on the farm. Instead of embracing life with Mattie, he dreams of their being embraced by death.
Zeena’s dominance over her husband is shown symbolically by her tall figure towering above him in the doorway as he scrabbles about on his knees looking for the key. Psychologically, it is shown by his ready acquiescence to her view that it is too cold for him to stay downstairs and do his accounts.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 3
The next day, Ethan is out hauling wood and reflecting on the previous night’s encounter with Zeena. They had gone to bed in silence and Zeena had taken her medicine. She had turned her face away from him, and he had blown out the light so that he would not see her when he lay down. Ethan thinks back to the warm touch of Mattie’s shoulder against his and regrets that he did not kiss her. When she had come to Starkfield, he had expected her to hate the hard life there, but she had never seemed discontented. Zeena had ungenerously put this down to the fact that she had nowhere else to go, but Ethan reflects that Zeena does not apply this principle to herself.
Mattie was the daughter of a cousin of Zeena’s, Orin Silver, who had inherited from his wife a thriving drug business but had died penniless. His wife had then died of the shock, and the twenty-year-old Mattie was left alone with only fifty dollars. She had few marketable skills, and when she had tried to learn the more lucrative skills of accounting and shorthand, her health had broken down. Her family resented the fact that her father had lost the savings they had invested in his business, and gave her no financial help. When Zeena’s doctor had recommended that she get help in the house, the family had pressured Mattie to accept the position.
There, Mattie had regained her health, though the atmosphere between Zeena and her was at first strained, with Zeena silently critical of the girl’s efforts. As time passed, however, Zeena found she had “more leisure to devote to her complex ailments,” and seemed to relax somewhat. But Ethan feels uneasy; he has a sense of foreboding, prompted by Zeena’s silence and Mattie’s sudden look of warning. He had intended to drive the load of wood to the village for delivery to the builder, Andrew Hale, but then thinks better of it. He decides that if there is going to be trouble between the two women, he should be there, and heads back to the house.
He walks in to find Mattie making coffee and Zeena sitting at the table in her best dress, with her luggage next to her. Zeena tells him that she is in such pain that she is going to the nearby town of Bettsbridge to see the new doctor there. Ethan has seen her make similar trips to see new doctors before, and they worry him because they involve his having to pay for a lot of new medicines. But this time, he is relieved, because this trip to the doctor suggests that Zeena’s ailments, and not her suspicion that he is having an affair with Mattie, account for her sitting up the previous night. He calculates that Zeena could not return to the farm before the following evening, and grows excited at the prospect of being alone overnight for the first time with Mattie.
Zeena asks him if he will let the farm hand, Jotham Powell, drive her to the train station, and Ethan agrees. He says he would drive her himself, but must collect payment for the wood from Andrew Hale. This is a lie, as Ethan knows there is no chance of Hale’s paying so soon, but he wants to avoid spending a long journey with his wife. Ethan instantly regrets his words, as his mention of the payment will make Zeena think she can spend money freely.
Chapter 3 Analysis
Ethan’s ability to predict rain correctly, even on “stainless” mornings, tells us that his forebodings about “trouble” between Mattie and Zeena are probably as accurate. The fact that bad weather, when it occurs, is inevitable underscores the inevitability of the storm that faces Ethan and Mattie.
There is irony in Ethan’s hopeful interpretation of Zeena’s vigil as being due to her ailments. The possibility that her waiting up has another explanation – suspicion that her husband is having an affair with Mattie – has already been introduced, and Zeena’s devious nature alerts us to the fact that whatever she says or does is likely to have an ulterior motive. The irony builds in Ethan’s excited reaction to Zeena’s planned trip to the new doctor. He is pleased for two reasons: going away overnight is hardly the action of a suspicious wife; and he will have time alone with Mattie. He has no idea of the tragic events that Zeena’s departure will set in motion.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 4
Now that Zeena has left, the house seems warm, bright and “homelike.” Ethan gaily whistles and sings as he looks forward to spending an evening with Mattie, just like a married couple. While he has a reputation for being taciturn and serious, he admires gaiety in others and his character warms up when exposed to it.
The narrator recounts the story of Ethan’s meeting and marrying Zeena. He was left alone to run the farm and mill after his father’s accident, and had no time left for chatting to people in the village. Then, when his mother fell ill, the house felt lonely and silent. When his mother was nearing death, Zeena came to nurse her. Ethan was grateful for Zeena’s chat. He was also impressed by her efficiency at the sick bed. After his mother’s funeral, he was filled with dread at the thought of being left on his own on the farm for the rest of the winter, and asked her to stay there with him.
When they married, they agreed that they would sell the farm and sawmill and move to a large town. Ethan wanted to work as an engineer and have access to lectures and libraries. But the farm did not sell quickly, and Ethan soon realized that Zeena could not live in a town because she would be looked down upon. She needed to live in a place like Starkfield, where she could look down on others. When she was nursing his mother, she had seemed healthy, but he discovered that her skill at nursing had been gained through observation of her own symptoms. “Then she too fell silent.” The very reason why Ethan married her no longer applied. Ethan no longer listened to her, because all her talk consisted of complaining. He worries that her silence may be a sign that she, like his mother, is turning “queer,” or that it conceals secret intentions drawn from suspicions.
Ethan worries about his having told Zeena that he is to receive cash for the wood, as this was only a cover story invented as an excuse not to drive her to the station. He therefore asks Andrew Hale for an advance on the payment, but he is too proud to plead an urgent need. Hale genially refuses, partly on the grounds that he is spending money on fixing up a house for his son and Ruth to live in after they are married.
While doing business in the village, Ethan is passed by Denis Eady driving his cutter toward the Frome farm. Ethan worries that Denis has heard that Zeena has left for Bettsbridge and is going to spend time with Mattie. He is struck by a storm of jealousy. As he passes the church, he surprises Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing under the Varnum spruces, the same place where he and Mattie had stood together the previous night. He envies them because unlike him, they do not need to hide their happiness.
As he approaches the farmhouse, he sees a light upstairs and thinks of Mattie in her room, preparing herself for supper. He remembers how much care she had taken with her appearance when she had first arrived, attracting Zeena’s scorn.
He passes the Frome gravestones, glancing at one marking the grave of a Frome ancestor with the same name as him. It reads: “Sacred to the memory of Ethan Frome and Endurance his wife, who dwelled together in peace for fifty years.” He wonders if the same epitaph might be written over him and Zeena.
When he reaches the farmhouse, Ethan is happy to see that Denis Eady’s horse is not in the barn. He finds the door locked and rattles the handle. After a minute, he sees the same light appear under the door as he had the previous day, when Zeena had opened the door. But tonight it is Mattie who opens the door to him and stands with her lamp lifted. Ethan is struck by her youthful beauty and the crimson ribbon she has woven into her hair. She has laid the table for supper, setting out his favorite pickles in a red glass dish. He asks if there have been any visitors, and she playfully admits to one, arousing his jealousy. She explains that she gave Jotham Powell a cup of coffee after he had driven Zeena to the station.
As they draw up their chairs to the table, the cat leaps between them onto Zeena’s empty chair, and Ethan feels that Zeena is in the room with them. Mattie asks whether, if there is more snow, it might delay Zeena’s return. At that moment, the cat jumps onto the table and knocks the pickle dish onto the floor, where it smashes into pieces. Mattie is terrified of what Zeena will say and begins to cry. The pickle dish had been a wedding present that came all the way from Philadelphia, and Zeena had so prized it that she kept it on the top shelf of the china closet so that no one could use it.
Ethan comforts Mattie and lays the pieces of the dish together on the shelf so that only a close inspection would reveal that the dish is broken. He plans to glue it together the next morning and eventually to try to buy a replacement in a nearby town. Mattie is relieved, and Ethan feels thrilled by her trust in him to rescue the situation.
Chapter 4 Analysis
Nature in Ethan Frome is never neutral, and Wharton’s remarks about the elements, the light and the landscape carry a deeper significance. In Chapter 3, Zeena is portrayed with the “pale light reflected from the banks of snow” on her face, making it look “more than usually drawn and bloodless” and throwing her wrinkles into high relief. The image is one of cold and death. At the beginning of Chapter 4, after Zeena has gone, Mattie is shown in the “warm and bright” kitchen. The sun is slanting in through the south window onto Mattie’s moving figure and onto the geraniums, brought in from the garden that Ethan had planted for her.
The theme of climate and landscape shaping character is taken up: “There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished.” While at first glance this is an optimistic image, we have seen how overwhelming the winters are here, and we wonder whether love can conquer them.
It is no exaggeration to say that Ethan only married Zeena because of the weather. His mother, whom Zeena came to nurse, had died, and Ethan could not bear the thought of being left alone in a silent farmhouse for the rest of the winter – so he asked Zeena to stay: “He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter.”
Not only does Ethan’s marriage turn out to be the graveyard of his ambition to move to a town and work as an engineer, but in a sad irony, the main reason he marries Zeena vanishes, as “she too fell silent.” His trip to see Andrew Hale offers up several incidents that emphasise how, by marrying Zeena, he has missed his chance of happiness. First comes Hale’s comment that it is “not so long ago” since he fixed up his house for Zeena, when Ethan feels that the seven years he has spent with her seem a very long time. Then comes the sight of the handsome young Denis Eady driving past in his new fur cap in the direction of the Frome farm and Mattie. Finally, there is the surprised shame of Ned and Ruth as he catches them kissing, though, he reflects, they have no need to hide their happiness, while he has to keep his feelings for Mattie under wraps.
The words on the gravestone of Ethan’s ancestor, also called Ethan Frome, have particular resonance for him. The epitaph says the ancestor had lived “in peace” with his wife Endurance, whose name is suggestive of the nature of Ethan’s marriage to Zeena. He does not enjoy his life with her, but only endures it. This image of marriage gone sour is contrasted with the romance between Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, which is characterized by hope and joy.
There is a deliberate parallel in the scene where Mattie opens the door to Ethan, just as Zeena had done the previous night. Though the event is identical, the two women are shown as very different from one another. Where Zeena had appeared as wizened and dried-up, Mattie is shown in all her youthful beauty: she has a “child’s” wrist and a “slim young throat.” Most significantly, she has woven a crimson ribbon through her hair. The color red, denoting Mattie’s passion and sensuality, links the ribbon to the scarf that she wore at the dance. This scarf acted as a ‘flag’ or signal enabling Ethan to mark her out among the crowd. We are led to wonder, as Ethan surely must, what tonight’s ribbon signals.
The Fromes’ cat has an interesting symbolic role. He leaps onto Zeena’s empty chair between Ethan and Mattie, almost as if he were the ghost of Zeena trying to keep them apart. Wharton would certainly have been aware of the cat’s role in the mythology of Europeans and, by extension, their descendants who settled in the United States. Cats were the favorite companions or ‘familiars’ of witches, who were believed to temporarily occupy the animal’s body for the purpose of travelling about and doing their work unseen. The Fromes’ cat is perhaps responsible for Ethan’s uneasy feeling that Zeena is somehow in the room with them. The fact that the cat breaks the pickle dish is significant: the cat is already symbolically linked with Zeena. Ethan feels that the shattered dish reflects Mattie’s and his shattered evening together, though it can also be seen as representing their disloyalty in the context of Ethan’s marriage (their mutual attraction has put ‘cracks’ into the marriage). The dish was given to the Fromes on their marriage and ever since then had lain unused on a high shelf, symbolic of Ethan’s sterile marriage to Zeena. It is typical of Ethan that after the dish is broken, he lays together the pieces, unable to consign it to the dustbin or to confront Zeena with the truth.
Even when Zeena is absent, she gets her way; he has successfully come between Ethan and Mattie.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 5
After supper, Ethan and Mattie settle down in the kitchen for the evening. At first, Mattie sits out of sight of Ethan. Wanting to see her, he asks her to come and sit by the stove. She obediently takes a seat in Zeena’s chair. Ethan has a momentary vision of his wife’s head where Mattie’s is. Mattie seems uncomfortable and, saying that she cannot see to sew, returns to her original seat. Ethan surreptitiously moves his chair so that he can see her. The cat once again sits in Zeena’s chair and watches them.
Ethan and Mattie chat easily and comfortably, and he fantasizes that they will go on spending their evenings like this. He suggests that they go sledding the following evening if there is a moon. She delightedly agrees. He asks her if she would be too scared to go down the slope with the elm at the bottom. She insists she would be no more scared than he would be. But he points out that he would be scared, as it would be easy to collide with the elm.
Ethan tells Mattie that he on his way home, he saw a friend of hers getting kissed. Mattie blushes and seems guarded. He speculates about when Ned and Ruth will wed, and says it will be Mattie’s turn next. Mattie asks why he keeps saying such things; he replies, to get him used to the idea. But Mattie feels that he is really referring to Zeena’s desire to get rid of her. She is distressed, and they agree not to think about it. He touches the edge of the material she is sewing. He feels a warm current pass between them, and a faint movement of her eyelashes shows her awareness of his gesture. The moment is broken when the cat suddenly jumps off Zeena’s rocking chair to chase a mouse, and sets the chair in ghostly motion. Ethan has the painful realization that Zeena will be rocking in it herself this time tomorrow, and feels now that this is the only evening he and Mattie will ever have together. He tenderly kisses the material he Is holding. As his lips rest on it, it glides from him, as Mattie rolls it up to put it away in the sewing box he had bought her.
She finishes her nightly household duties and they retire to bed separately. He realizes that he has not even touched her hand.
Chapter 5 Analysis
Ethan and Mattie’s conversation about the dangerous elm at the bottom of the coasting slope is another example of foreshadowing their fate. Though at this point we do not know what finally happens to them, we know that Ethan ends up crippled.
Mattie’s comment – that she would be no more frightened to go down the slope than Ethan would be – can be taken as an obscure way of saying that she would be willing to meet him half-way in their illicit relationship. Because we know how dangerous the slope is, there is an undercurrent of recklessness in this exchange that applies equally to the sledding and to their relationship. They are taking a risk in entertaining the possibility, though Ethan is at this point still pulling back, saying, “I wouldn’t do it.”
During their evening together – as Ethan thinks, the only one they will ever have – the spectral presence of Zeena still haunts them and breaks into their moment of tenderness. When the cat jumps off Zeena’s chair in pursuit of the mouse, he sets it rocking as if she herself were rocking it. Ethan is reminded that at this time the following day, she will be there, and there is nothing he can do to “stop the mad flight of the moments.”
While Mattie responds with carefully controlled warmth to Ethan’s gesture of kissing her sewing material, the connection between them is broken by the cat’s action in setting Zeena’s chair rocking. Mattie immeditately slips the material from under Ethan’s lips, rolls it up and puts it away. It is significant that she puts in the box he gave her – her attention is on him, but she cannot be open with her feelings and must keep them in a metaphorical ‘box.’ Then Mattie drags the cat’s bed over to the stove, symbolically reaffirming Zeena’s place at the hearth of the household. Mattie and Ethan depart separately to their own bedrooms.
Modern readers will be struck by the tight control over expression of feeling, uncharacteristic of today, and the consequently extreme significance of the tiniest gestures and smallest motions of the body. Wharton was writing in an age where the stigma attached to illicit relationships was great, and that of divorce even greater. She knew this at first hand, as she wrote Ethan Frome when she was trapped in an unhappy marriage to a mentally unstable man (whom she later divorced) and having a passionate affair. As is clear from the episode when Ned Hale and Ruth are embarrassed by Ethan’s seeing them kissing, even displays of affection within a regular courtship were not considered quite decent.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 6
Next morning, Ethan feels “irrationally happy,” in spite of the fact that nothing happened between him and Mattie – or possibly, because of this: “.their evening together had given him a vision of what life at her side might be, and he was glad now that he had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture.”
Jotham Powell eats breakfast with Ethan and Mattie. The snow has melted enough to turn the roads to glass, and Ethan decides it will be safer to load the rest of the wood immediately but to delay taking it to Starkfield until the afternoon. He asks Jotham Powell to drive to the Flats after dinner to pick up Zeena, while he himself delivers the wood. While Jotham is harnessing the horses, Ethan looks tenderly at Mattie and wants to say, “We shall never be alone again like this.” But all he says is that he will be home for dinner.
After loading the wood, Ethan goes to Michael Eady’s store to buy some glue to mend the pickle dish, but cannot find any. Ethan rushes off to widow Honan’s store, where he finds a single bottle of glue. Ethan drives home in the rain and hurries into his kitchen. Mattie starts at his entrance and tells him that Zeena has arrived back and has gone straight up to her room without a word. He tells her not to worry; he will come down in the night and mend the dish.
He goes out to feed the horses and meets Jotham. Ethan invites Jotham to dinner, thinking that his presence will help neutralize the atmosphere now that Zeena is back. Jotham uncharacteristically refuses. As Jotham departs, Ethan wonders uneasily why he refused the invitation. Perhaps Zeena had not had a successful visit with the doctor and had taken out her frustration on Jotham on the journey home.
When Ethan goes back into the kitchen, the table is set and the scene as welcoming as it was the previous evening. She and Ethan look at each other in silence. Mattie says, just as she had said then, “I guess it’s about time for supper.”
Chapter 6 Analysis
Critics have debated why Ethan does not touch Mattie or take their relationship further, and why he should be happy that he did not. However, his failure to act is consistent with how he has conducted his life thus far, subjugating his own ambitions and desires in a martyred existence looking after one invalid after another. Moreover, Ethan has become used to living his life not in the present moment, but in “dreams,” “visions” and “fancies.” Perhaps he feels more comfortable in the realm of ‘what could be’ than in the realm of ‘what is.’
This interpretation is reinforced by the repeated imagery of darkness, night and shadow that surrounds Ethan. For example, in Chapter 1, when he is waiting for Mattie to emerge from the bright dance hall (her natural environment is bright light, as her name suggests), he retreats into the “darkness” and “shadows.” In this chapter, he says he will come downstairs in the night and secretly mend the pickle dish, just as he used to sneak downstairs in the night to scrub the floor, thereby helping Mattie and covering for her inefficiency at housekeeping.
Jungian psychologists say that the shadow side of the psyche is the side which has been denied or buried by the conscious self and which has not been brought out into the ‘light’ of full conscious awareness. It therefore remains unfulfilled and must seek expression in roundabout ‘unconscious’ ways, such as dreams, visions, fantasies and secret impulses. In Ethan’s life, most of what is real, heartfelt and vital lies suppressed and hidden. His comment to Mattie, that he guesses he will be home for dinner, when he had wanted to say that this would be the last time they would be alone, is an example.
Mattie’s account of Zeena’s arrival home and going straight up to her room without a word, followed by Jotham’s refusal of the dinner invitation, create an air of foreboding. Though everything at supper appears to be just as it was when Zeena was away, and Mattie uses exactly the same words, “I guess it’s about time for supper,” we feel that something bad is about to happen.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 7
Ethan calls Zeena’s name up the stairs but receives no answer. He enters the bedroom and sees her sitting by the window, in the dark, still in her traveling dress. Ethan tells her that supper is ready, but she says she is not hungry. Then she informs Ethan, “I’m a great deal sicker than you think.” Ethan wonders hopefully if her words, which he has heard before, might this time be true. She says that the doctor told her she should not do anything around the house and that she should hire a girl. Her Aunt Martha, with whom she stayed while in Bettsbridge, has found her one, and she is due to arrive the following afternoon.
Ethan is angry. He no longer believes Zeena’s claims about how sick she is, and he cannot afford to pay a servant. Zeena says it is the least he can do for her after she lost her own health looking after his mother, a claim which rouses Ethan’s indignation. This is the first time that they have openly expressed their anger in seven years of marriage. Zeena reminds Ethan of the fifty dollars he claimed he was going to get from Andrew Hale before her departure. Ethan replies that Hale never pays in less than three months. As soon as the words are out, Ethan realizes that he has been caught out in his own lie. He had told Zeena that the reason he could not drive her to the station was because he had to collect this payment. Ethan is wrongfooted and Zeena forces home her advantage, pointing out that when Mattie has left they will not need to pay for her board and can use the money to pay the hired girl. Then she laughs – for the first time, insofar as Ethan can remember. She says that they have suppported Mattie for long enough.
Ethan is shocked and attempts to defend Mattie, saying that they cannot simply put her out onto the street. He realizes that Zeena has mastered him, and he abhors her. He is about to hit her, but stops himself, and merely asks if she is coming down to supper. She says she is not, and that she will lie down for a while.
Ethan goes downstairs to eat with Mattie, but has no appetite. She anxiously asks what is wrong. He leaves his chair and walks around the table to stand by her. As she leans towards him, he catches her in his arms and kisses her. In an outburst of emotion, he tells her that he will never let her go. Mattie is confused at first, but soon understands from Ethan that Zeena means to replace her. They begin to discuss her prospects of getting another job, but he feels that there is little chance of this, due to her inexperience and lack of training. Ethan tells her that he means to have his way with Zeena at last, but Mattie silences him with a warning gesture as Zeena enters the room. She says she will eat to keep her strength up, though she has no appetite. The cat rubs against her. She pets it and feeds it a piece of meat from her plate.
While Ethan sits silently, Mattie tries to engage Zeena in polite conversation. Zeena has a faint smile on her face. Having finished her meal, she goes off to hunt for her stomach powders. Ethan gets up to go out and take a look around. At the door, he meets Zeena who has come back in bearing the broken pieces of the pickle dish, which she found while looking for her stomach powders. She demands to know who broke it. Ethan tells her the cat did it. Zeena is not satisfied: she wants to know who laid the pieces together. Mattie defends Ethan by saying that while the cat did break the dish, she took it down from the closet, and so she is to blame. Zeena is furious that Mattie “took the thing I most set store by of anything I’ve got.” She calls Mattie a bad girl and says she should have turned her out long ago. In tears, Zeena gathers up the broken pieces as if she were carrying a dead body, and leaves the room.
Chapter 7 Analysis
Wharton treats Zeena’s supposed illnesses with savage irony. Zeena says that she is sicker than Ethan thinks, and that she has “complications.” On this basis, she claims the authority of one “chosen” and “singled out for a great fate”: to have “troubles” was common, but to have “complications” “was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant.” She is conferring upon herself the special status of a martyr. No longer whiny and reproachful, Zeena is now resolute. Her illness becomes a weapon that she uses to take control of her household. She means to get rid of her rival, Mattie, and instal a hired girl in her place.
Zeena comes over as a sort of parasite, who grows stronger from the suffering of Ethan and Mattie. She laughs, for the first time, as far as Ethan is aware, just after she has told him that they will pay for the hired girl by getting rid of Mattie. This is the worst thing that Ethan can imagine, and it would certainly ruin Mattie too – but Zeena is happy, in her fashion. This, in turn, follows Zeena’s effortless exposure of Ethan’s lie that he could not drive her to the station because he was collecting the payment from Hale. Zeena has triumphed over her husband, who, as the narrator comments, is no good at lying.
The cat is confirmed as Zeena’s ‘agent,’ rubbing himself “ingratiatingly” against her and receiving praise and the payment of a piece of meat from her plate.
So unsympathetic is the character of Zeena that readers may regret that Ethan conquers his impulse to hit her – or at least, that he fails to stand up for Mattie and himself. But Ethan is a past master at suppressing his impulses. Mattie appears the more courageous one, taking the blame for the broken dish upon herself in an attempt to defend Ethan from Zeena’s wrath.
Zeena’s response to her discovery of the broken pickle dish is laden with symbolism and psychological import. She describes the dish as “the thing I most set store by of anything I’ve got.” It is both ludicrous and tragic that above her husband, home, cousin Mattie, farm, and animals, she prizes. a pickle dish. Her tears over the dish represent her first and only display of real emotion. But though she prized the dish, she never used it, but kept it in a place that ensured it could never be used. As noted before, this denotes the sterility of her life and marriage.
However, there is another meaning behind her response. The dish is symbolic of her marriage to Ethan, and Mattie, by taking it down from the closet, enabled it to be broken. So Zeena’s tears can be taken as genuine grief over the destruction of her marriage by Mattie.
But beyond even this level of meaning is that which arises from the symbolism that has been built up around the cat and the pickle dish. The cat is Zeena’s ‘agent,’ and the pickle dish is Zeena’s marriage, so ultimately, Zeena herself is responsible for breaking both dish and marriage! The cat delivered the conscious expression of a truth that both Zeena and Ethan knew – that the marriage was dead. This is reinforced by the image at the end of the chapter of Zeena carrying out the broken dish “as if she carried a dead body.”
To blame Zeena for the pickle dish incident is the ‘verdict of the heart’ at which many readers arrive, though it is the opposite of the moral verdict, which must condemn Mattie and Ethan for their disloyalty to Zeena.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 8
After Zeena retires upstairs, Mattie clears up the kitchen and Ethan makes his usual rounds outside. The kitchen is empty when he gets back, but Mattie has left a note for him, saying, “Don’t trouble, Ethan.” Ethan feels he cannot give up the “life” and “warmth” that Mattie gives him. A storm of rebellion rises within him: why should he waste his life in service of the bitter, querulous Zeena, wose only pleasure is to inflict pain on him? He flings aside a cushion that Zeena had made and reflects on the case of a local man who had escaped from a similar life of misery by going West with the girl he loved. They had a child and prospered, and even the deserted wife had done well. Encouraged by this example, Ethan decides to go West with Mattie, leaving a note for Zeena. He plans to leave her the farm and mill so that she can sell it and live off the money.
Then Ethan begins to reflect. He was sure of finding work and could manage if he were alone, but with Mattie depending on him, the case was different. And the farm and mill were mortgaged to the hilt; Zeena would only clear a thousand dollars on the sale. She could return to her family, the fate she was forcing on Mattie. But then he notices an advertisement in the paper offering trips West, and realizes he cannot even afford the reduced rate. He cannot borrow money, as he has no security. He is “a prisoner for life,” he decides, and will lose his “one ray of light,” Mattie. He collapses on the sofa in tears. Then he notices that the moon is up, and remembers his promise to take Mattie sledding that evening. He falls asleep.
Ethan wakes cold, stiff and hungry, and recalls that it is Mattie’s last day. Mattie comes in, aware that he has not been to bed, since she was listening all night for him to come upstairs. He is touched by her concern and makes up the fire for her. He comforts himself that Zeena may relent and allow Mattie to stay. When he goes out to the cow-barn he meets Jotham, who tells Ethan of the arrangements that Zeena has already made with him to take Mattie and her trunk to the station. Ethan replies that the question of Mattie’s leaving is not settled.
The two men go into the house to join the women for breakfast. Zeena is unusually alert and is feeding the cat. She asks Jotham about the travel arrangements for Mattie. Then she says that there are some things she wants to clear up with Mattie before she leaves – namely, she believes that certain household items are missing. She and Mattie leave the room, and Jotham tells Ethan that he will go ahead with the travel arrangements. Ethan views these proceedings without a word.
After Ethan finishes his morning tasks, he becomes fired with rebellion once more. He feels appalled that he has assisted “as a helpless spectator at Mattie’s banishment.” He makes up his mind to do something, but he does not know what. The sun has come out and a “pale haze” of spring can be seen. Mattie’s presence seems to infuse the entire scene.
He thinks of an idea. He will ask Andrew Hale once more to advance him a payment on the wood, using the excuse that Zeena’s ill health makes it necessary to hire a servant. Catching sight of Hale’s sleigh, he hurries to meet it, but sees it is Mrs Hale in the sleigh. Mrs Hale tells him that she has heard about Zeena’s going to see the new doctor. She expresses regret that Zeena is not feeling well and says that she does not know what she would have done if Ethan had not been around to take care of her. She commiserates with Ethan: “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome.”
Ethan is moved by Mrs Hale’s kindness and at first is strengthened in his purpose, thinking that the Hales may look sympathetically on his request for payment. He begins to walk to their house to see Mr Hale, but draws up short at the realization that he is about to take advantage of their sympathy to obtain money on false pretences. He cannot find the heart to leave Zeena alone and destitute, particularly if it means deceiving two kind people.
Chapter 8 Analysis
This chapter begins with Ethan forging a plan to leave Zeena and go West with Mattie – and then the plan collapsing as Ethan considers the practicalities and rejects them as unfeasible. Imagery of prisons is used to express the seeming impossibility of escape: “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict.”
The emotion that governs Ethan in this chapter is inaction. He looks on wordlessly as Zeena efficiently arranges Mattie’s departure. After he does his morning’s work, he becomes fired with rebellion once more and makes up his mind to do something, though “he did not know what it would be.” His positive mood is reflected in the first glimmer of spring shining through. Once again, Mattie is linked with warmth and life, as contrasted with Zeena’s winter: “Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie’s presence.” When he hears a bird call, it sounds like her laughter – one of several instances in which Mattie is likened to a bird.
He comes up with a plan that seems to have a strong chance of succeeding. He will ask Andrew Hale again to advance him part of the payment he is owed for the wood, telling him (falsely) that Zeena’s ill health makes it necessary to hire a servant. Then by chance, he meets Mrs Hale, and her kindness and sympathy at first give him hope that his plan will work, but subsequently overcome him with moral paralysis. He decides that he must not fulfil his plan by deceiving two kind people, leaving Zeena destitute into the bargain.
Wharton makes it clear that there are two possible and opposite responses to Mrs Hale’s kindness, by showing us Ethan progressing through both in succession. There is the one dictated by love: get the money he is owed by telling a lie, and escape with Mattie; and there is the one dictated by the moral high ground: accept that he should not lie or take advantage of the Hales’ goodwill, even to get money that he is owed, and resign himself to his fate on the farm with Zeena. Ethan chooses the second. However, while Ethan undoubtedly has a strong sense of ethics and duty, he also has a decided tendency to inaction in favor of dreams. This is the man who prefers not to touch Mattie on their evening alone together so that he can retain intact his vision of what it could be like to be with her. It so happens that the moral decision coincides with the path of least action: it gives him a convenient reason to stay with the familiar and not to pursue the unknown path of a life with Mattie.
Some critics have noted Ethan’s moral absolutism. In reality, there are many shades of grey to be explored among the options of staying with Zeena or going with Mattie, but he sees only moral black (pursuing love and deserting Zeena) or white (the righteous path of duty to the spouse). A modern reader will think of other possibilities, and it is hard to believe that Wharton, with her complex marital history, did not think of them too. For example, Ethan could attempt a rational discussion with Zeena and her family about what she really wanted. He could be firm with the Hales and demand full payment for the wood, giving him more options. He could be firm with Zeena and insist that Mattie stay at the farm. He could leave with Mattie and ensure that between them, they earn enough money to help out Zeena. But he only sees two options: one seems impossible and the other intolerable. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ethan has become as frozen, sterile and rigid as the Starkfield winter landscape.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 9
Ethan returns to the house to find that the sleigh has come to take Mattie’s trunk to the station and that Zeena is in the kitchen reading a medical book. He asks where Mattie is, and Zeena replies that she is probably bringing down her trunk.
Ethan goes up to Mattie’s room and finds her sobbing on the bed. He lays his hands on her shoulders and she confesses that she feared she would never see him again. He takes her in his arms and lays his lips on her hair. Zeena calls for them to hurry and bring the trunk. They lift the trunk into the sleigh. He tells Mattie that he will drive her to the train, in spite of Zeena’s wish that Jotham should take her.
At dinner, Ethan cannot eat. Zeena eats heartily, and once again there is a smile on her face. Jotham asks Ethan what time he should come for Mattie. Ethan tells him not to bother, as he will drive her. Zeena protests, on the grounds that Ethan needs to mend the stove in the spare room in time for the hired girl’s arrival, but Ethan overrules her.
Ethan harnesses the horse, remembering sadly the day he had made the same preparations in order to collect Mattie and bring her to the farm. When he returns to the house, he finds Mattie in his study, taking a last look around. She reports that Zeena, without saying goodbye, has gone upstairs suffering from shooting pains, and does not want to be disturbed.
Ethan and Mattie get into the sleigh. Ethan drives off, taking a long way round, so tht they can pass Shadow Pond, a place that holds happy memories for them. When they arrive at a wood where they had a picnic, Ethan stops the sleigh and they walk around the area. They sit on a log, and Ethan reminds that this is the place where he found a gold locket she had lost. He longs to touch her and speak lovingly to her, but does not know how. She rises and suggests that they move on.
Back on the road, Ethan asks Mattie about her plans. She says she will try to find work in a store. He reminds her that her health would not stand it. He tells her that he would do anything within his powers for her. She pulls out Ethan’s note to Zeena, which he had abandoned and forgotten to destroy. Liberated by her broaching the subject of their being together, Ethan asks her if she would have agreed. But she declares that there is no point in thinking about it, tears up the note and throws it away. When he presses her, she admits that more than once, she had entertained the thought; the first time was at Shadow Pond.
Ethan tells her regretfully that he cannot do a thing to help their situation. She tells him he must write to her. He believes that she will marry, and says he would rather she were dead. Sobbing, she agrees.
Continuing on their journey, they come across a group of boys with sleds. Ethan reminds Mattie that they had intended to go sledding the previous night. Ethan suggests they should do it now. They find a spare sled under the Varnums’ spruce trees, where he had caught up with her after the village dance (Chapter 2). She sits in the sled and he takes his place behind her. She is worried that he will not be able to see properly in the fading light, but he boasts that he could go down the slope blindfolded. They go down the slope, and Ethan skilfully steers clear of the dangerous elm at the bottom. They walk back up the hill, and at the top, Mattie asks if this is where he caught Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing. She flings her arms around him and kisses him passionately, bidding him farewell. He protests that he cannot let her go. They hear the church clock strike five, but agree that neither wants to go anywhere without the other.
Then Mattie thinks of a plan that will ensure that they will never have to part. She asks Ethan to take her down the slope again and collide with the elm so that they die together. At first he dismisses the idea as crazy, but she points out that she does not want to leave him and is unable to manage on her own.
Ethan thinks of the hated vision of the home and wife he is to return to, and the joy of knowing that Mattie felt about him the same way that he felt about her. Unable to tolerate going back home to Zeena, he and Mattie take their places on the sled and he sets it in motion. The sled only needs to follow the track to collide with the elm. As the big tree looms closer, he seems to see Zeena’s twisted face thrust itself between him and his goal, and the sled glides off course. He rights it again, and they hit the elm.
Ethan regains consciousness to a ‘cheep’ sound like a mouse in pain. Unable to tolerate the sound of a suffering animal, he feels around for the source of the sound. His hand finds Mattie’s hair and face. He places his face close to hers, sees her eyes open, and hears her say his name. Then he hears his horse whinny, and remembers that he will need to be fed.
Chapter 9 Analysis
The mood of this chapter is one of mounting despair and an unescapable fate, which Ethan feels powerless to alter: “It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock.” This conviction of being bound, of course, absolves Ethan of responsibility for his fate. He is incapable of making a decision and following it through into action. Instead, he constantly defers to external factors and blames them for the lack of fulfilment in his life, whether they be the climate, his marriage to Zeena and the accompanying social conventions, fate, or his financial difficulties. His decision not to ask the Hales for money for a second time can be put down to moral scruples.
Some would say that moral scruples are an internal rather than an external factor, but the fact that they arise at all in this instance is due not to the ethical force of Ethan’s inner nature, but to a chance meeting with Mrs Hale and the words she chanced to utter. Then Ethan had two options as to how he would act on her words, and chose the option of helpless resignation to his married fate. His sense of duty to Zeena, in turn, is forged by external conventions (duty to the spouse) rather than heartfelt devotion to her or even a sense of her deserving ability. He is convinced (as his farewell note to her revealed) that the service he has devoted to her has been of no benefit to her or to him, and only feels hatred for her.
Ethan is at least able to muster enough determination to stand up to Zeena in his insistence on on driving Mattie to the station himself. But he cannot see any alternative to going along with his wife’s plan to banish Mattie. Wharton uses the metaphor of ‘coasting’ (sledding) to encapsulate Ethan’s passive approach to life. While it is possible to steer a sled, sledding is essentially an activity dictated by gravity: you let go and end up where the slope takes you. Having got into the ‘sled’ of his marriage with Zeena, he seems able only to keep in the tracks established by other ‘coasters’ – the rest of conventional society – and resign himself to his fate. Modern usage of the word ‘coasting’ reinforces this metaphor: we say that someone is ‘coasting’ if they are moving aimlessly through life with little effort.
Mattie is emboldened by her discovery (via Ethan’s note to Zeena) that he had planned to leave his wife for her. She confesses that she has loved Ethan for a long time, revealing for the first time that Ethan’s feelings are fully reciprocated. This heightens the sense of impending tragedy, as there is more at stake: we know now that the two could make a real future together. But Ethan insists, “I’m tied hand and foot,” seemingly leaving them no option but the extreme one they end up taking. It is Mattie who seizes the initiative in the sledding scene, thinking up the suicide pact so that she and Ethan need never be parted.
Ethan at first responds to the idea with incredulity, but as he has done all along, he allows himself to be led, and gives in to Mattie’s suggestion. His boast during their first coast that he could go down blindfolded has a double ironic resonance: it foreshadows their deliberate crash, and in a wider sense, it refers to Ethan’s tendency not to look out for himself but to be dictated to by others. Similarly, Ethan’s reflection as they walk up the hill after their first coast, that this will be the last time they will walk together, is ironic in light of the revelations of the final chapter, which tell us that Mattie never walks again.
In a terrible irony, even the suicide pact, traditionally the plan of last resort for despairing lovers, fails. Ethan and Mattie are denied their ecstatic resolution-in-death. They survive the crash, though they are terribly injured, a fact that is not yet established but that is foreshadowed by Ethan’s belief that Mattie’s half-conscious groans are made by a suffering small animal.
Ethan Frome Summary – Chapter 10
Ethan and the narrator enter the Frome kitchen, whereupon the “querulous drone” of a woman’s voice ceases. Two women sit there, though the narrator cannot tell which had been speaking. One of the women, of tall and bony appearance and “slatternly” in dress, rises when the men come in – not to welcome the guest, but to get the meal ready.
The other woman, smaller and slighter, sits huddled in an armchair. Her hair is as grey as her companion’s, “her face as bloodless and shrivelled.” Her body is limp under her shapeless dress. The kitchen looks poor. When Ethan comments that it feels cold, the seated woman says, in a complaining voice, that the fire has only just been made up as Zeena had fallen asleep. The narrator realizes that this is the woman whose droning voice he had heard as he came in.
The taller woman brings some unappetising left-overs to the table. Ethan introduces her as his wife, and the woman in the armchair as Mattie Silver.
The next morning, the narrator is able to return to his lodgings at Mrs Hale’s. Mrs Hale and her mother who lives with her, Mrs Varnum, are amazed that Ethan had taken him in for the night. Mrs Hale says that he must have been the first stranger to set foot in the house for over twenty years. Ethan was so proud that he did not like even his friends to go there. She herself and the doctor are the only people who still visit. Mrs Hale says that she used to visit frequently after the accident, but felt that it made them feel worse. Now, she goes twice a year, preferably when Ethan is not at home. It is bad enough, she explains, to see the two women sitting there,”but his face, when he looks around that bare place, just kills me.”
Mrs Hale tells the narrator that she was present when the injured Ethan and Mattie were brought into the Hales’ house. They had laid Mattie in the room that the narrator is staying in. Mrs Hale and Mattie had been good friends, and Mattie was to have been Mrs Hale’s bridesmaid. Mrs Hale had stayed all night with Mattie. When she begins to talk about Mattie’s regaining consciousness, she breaks off in tears. She takes up her story again with her hearing a rumor the next day that Zeena had sent Mattie away because she had a hired girl coming. Nobody could understand what Ethan and Mattie were doing coasting when they should have been on their way to the train. She does not know what Zeena thought: “Nobody knows Zeena’s thoughts.” But when Zeena had heard about the accident, she had come and stayed with Ethan at the minister’s house, where they had taken him. As soon as the doctors said Mattie could be moved, Zeena sent for her to be taken back to the farm. There was, as Mrs Hale says, nowhere else for her to go.
Since the accident over twenty years ago, Mrs Hale says, Zeena has cared for Ethan and Mattie. This was a “miracle,” she says, knowing that before the accident she couldn’t even care for herself, “but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her.”
Mrs Hale goes on to say that while Zeena was always cranky, Mattie has “soured” since the accident. The two women are frequently at each other’s throats, which upsets Ethan and makes Mrs Hale think it is he who suffers the most.
Mrs Hale ends her account by saying that about a week after the accident, Mattie had been expected not to live. Mrs Hale believes it is a pity she did: “. if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”
Chapter 10 Analysis
We take up the story where the Author’s Introductory Note left off, with the narrator entering Ethan’s house and hearing the querulous drone of a woman’s voice. Wharton uses the same technique of delay in giving us information as she used at the beginning of the novel. The narrator at first does not know whose voice it is. We assume it is Zeena’s voice – but we are wrong. The discovery, when it comes, that this is Mattie’s voice, shocks us with its irony.
At the end of the previous chapter, it seemed that the irony of Ethan’s story could not get any bitterer. But the final chapter surpasses the previous one in irony. Until now, Mattie, with her warmth and beauty, had seemed the opposite of cold, withered, barren Zeena. She represented the new, fertile life to which Ethan wanted to escape. She has turned into the “soured,” “bloodless,” whining invalid that Zeena had been before the accident.
Zeena, on the contrary, has come into her own since that day. She has gained strength from who knows where, and has taken control of the household and cared for Ethan and Mattie. Her transformation raises the question of just how sick she ever was.
It is worth asking what effect Zeena’s ‘recovery’ has on our sympathies. We may feel a cynicism reserved for the conman beggar who throws away his crutches the minute he gets out of sight of potential donors. Or we may, with Mrs Hale, feel some admiration for her, as one who found the strength to cope when “the call” came.
But there is a sense in which Zeena’s new role is not new at all. Before the accident, she controlled and manipulated Ethan and Mattie through her supposed illnesses. After the accident, she is no longer the chief invalid, and must adopt another role if she is to remain on top. Now, she controls and manipulates Ethan and Mattie through her role as carer. For Zeena, martyrdom – first to her illnesses, then to her carer role – gives her power over others. Her role as carer is an extension of her witch-like role in earlier scenes and is likely to strike us as being just as sinister. Traditionally, it was believed that ‘black’ witches could gain power by sucking it from others, which is exactly what has happened: Ethan’s and Mattie’s ruin has been Zeena’s apotheosis. Now, Zeena has everyone where she wants them: Mattie and Ethan are unable to leave her, Mattie is no longer a threat, and Zeena is queen – or tyrant – of her household.
Ethan’s fate is another bleak and tragic irony. On the coasting slope, he had said that he had wanted always to be with Mattie, and now he has his wish – but at the terrible price of her inability ever to go anywhere else. His prophetic desire (Chapter 2) that his dead Frome ancestors help to keep Mattie with him has been fulfilled. Mrs Hale thinks that if she had died, Ethan may have lived, but now he is trapped with her and Zeena in a kind of living death. It is almost as if a malevolent fate had conspired with the witch-like Zeena to punish Ethan’s infidelity by giving him the object of his desire and love, only for him to see Mattie turn into a version of the hated Zeena.
However, it would be false to say that Ethan is not responsible for his fate. He consistently fails to take responsibility for making decisions that could create a better life for himself, and by failing to set his own direction, he ‘coasts’ in the tracks that Zeena and society have set for him. He has given up his power into the hands of others, and has given up life in favor of death. Because he made no decisive move to escape, he ends where he began, trapped in the snowbound, sterile landscape, poverty and despair of Starkfield.