Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Chapters 3-5

Summary

The next morning, Ethan is out early hauling lumber. He thinks about the previous night when he lay awake until the light in Mattie's room went out. He remembered when Mattie first came to stay with the Fromes. She had not had any place else to go. Her father, Zeena's cousin, squandered money before dying unexpectedly, and shortly thereafter, Mattie's mother died, leaving her destitute. Because family members lost money by trusting Mattie's father with it, they punished Mattie by refusing to help her. Zeena needed household help because of her illness, so Mattie arrived in Starkfield to work for Zeena.

At first, Zeena found fault with everything Mattie did; however, over time, the situation became less tense. After the warning look that Mattie had given Ethan the previous night, Ethan felt it was necessary to leave his work and return home to be sure there was no trouble between Mattie and Zeena.

Ethan was surprised to see Zeena sitting in the kitchen with her suitcase. She announced that she was going to Bettsbridge to see a doctor and would be staying with her aunt, Martha Pierce. The first thought that came to Ethan's mind was that he would be alone with Mattie for one full night. Because he didn't want to drive Zeena to the Junction, he lied to her, saying he needed to pick up money from Andrew Hale but that Jotham Powell would drive her.

After Zeena leaves, Ethan leaves the house also to take his load of lumber to Andrew Hale. On the way he thinks about his past — the death of his father, the responsibility of running the farm and mill, his mother's silence and ultimate death, and his marriage to Zeena after she had cared for his mother. The couple wanted to move away from Starkfield, but Ethan couldn't find a buyer for the farm and mill and he realized that Zeena needed to stay in Starkfield where she was well known (if only for being "sickly"). Zeena soon became silent also and communication between the couple came to a halt.

After delivering lumber to Andrew Hale and asking for payment (which he doesn't get), Ethan takes care of other business in town and heads home. When he gets home, the back door is locked. He calls for Mattie and she opens the door, standing exactly as Zeena stood the night before.

Mattie set the dinner table special for Ethan, using Zeena's cherished red pickle dish. During the course of their meal, the cat knocks the dish and it falls on the floor and breaks. Mattie is quite upset, but Ethan pieces the dish together, puts it on the shelf, and promises to glue it together the next day. Mattie clears the table and they sit down near the fire. Mattie and Ethan talk comfortably with each other while Mattie sews. When the cat jumps from Zeena's chair, they are reminded of Zeena's return. They take care of their nightly chores and go to bed.

Analysis

In anticipation of Ethan and Mattie's evening together during Zeena's trip to Bettsbridge, Wharton has Ethan recall Mattie's background and the details of how she came to live with the Fromes. If Mattie's accomplishments such as making candy and trimming hats seem frivolous in the face of the hard work she is required to do for Zeena, these abilities represent a youthful and happy personality which is able to entertain itself with frivolity instead of moping in self-pity about imagined ills as Zeena does.

Mattie is in most ways the opposite of Zeena; Mattie is happy, healthy, pretty and young, while Zeena is unhappy, sickly, ugly, and seven years older than Ethan. In Mattie, Wharton creates a character who is naturally appealing while presenting Zeena as an unlikable and cold woman. Zeena is whining and petulant and her presence must be endured.

When describing Zeena sitting at the table, Wharton uses bleak and cold imagery. Zeena sits in "the pale light reflected from the banks of snow," which makes "her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless," and makes her other unattractive features more apparent.

Ethan's first thought about Zeena's trip is that such trips have cost him a lot of money in the past, and the remedies have not had a positive effect on Zeena's illness. He disregards these unpleasant recollections when he realizes that he will be able to spend the night alone with Mattie. Ethan's fears that Zeena may suspect his love for Mattie are allayed when he realizes that Zeena was indeed feeling ill the previous night. Ethan, who is normally rather honest, comes up with a story to tell Zeena about why he can't drive her to the train station.

The story Ethan comes up with (going into town to be paid for lumber) is acceptable to Zeena. He realizes that it was not a good idea to let Zeena know that he has any money before she went on one of her expensive journeys to doctors. Such considerations are quickly put aside, as Ethan returns to thoughts about the evening with Mattie. The lie that he told Zeena will come back to haunt him because Zeena later justifies hiring a girl to replace Mattie based on the money Ethan was supposed to be getting.

After Zeena leaves with Jotham Powell, the kitchen seems more comfortable and inviting because Mattie and Ethan are alone. Ethan goes to town, his mind is busy conjuring up pictures of what the evening with Mattie will be like. It is important to note that Ethan visualizes nothing illicit or immoral; all he hopes for is an evening of companionship before the fire.

Ethan's thoughts about the evening prompt him to think about the silence that has been part of his life since his college days. The theme of silence is discussed with reference to Ethan's past. Some of the symptoms of the silence surrounding Ethan were his inability to communicate with Zeena and his halting efforts to say something significant to Mattie. The silence imposed by his marriage to Zeena is one of the causes of Ethan's need for illusion. Illusion in turn reinforces the silence by helping Ethan avoid communication by fantasizing. Wharton reveals the background of Ethan's marriage to Zeena is revealed so the evening with Mattie in which silence is partially conquered will be prepared for. Wharton reveals the depth of isolation that Ethan experiences in his mind as a result of living in a silent house with a silent woman.

Because Ethan couldn't bear to be alone, he married Zeena (who had been living with him, caring for his mother). He now wonders whether or not he would have married Zeena if it had been spring instead of winter. Ethan realizes that his fear of loneliness rather than love for Zeena prompted their marriage. After the death of his father, Ethan had the responsibility of the farm and mill, leaving him little time for establishing relationships with villagers. When his mother stopped talking, Ethan felt as though the silence would drive him mad.

After delivering lumber to Andrew Hale and asking Hale for money (which Ethan is refused), Ethan drives home and passes the family cemetery where the family tombstone of Ethan and Endurance Frome proclaims that they shared fifty years of wedded bliss. The epitaph seems ironic to Ethan. Recently reminded of seven years' endurance of Zeena, he wonders what people might someday say about the two of them. More important as a parallel to the previous night's action (when he walked by the cemetery with Mattie), Ethan's thoughts show that he now seriously does consider himself married to Zeena, and that he briefly realizes his thoughts of being buried in the cemetery with Mattie were fantasy. The headstone is also ironic because, in the end, it is Zeena who must forego her illnesses and prove herself in the role of "endurance" in anything but peaceful circumstances as she ministers for years to the two crippled victims of the sledding accident.

The events of the night before are paralleled in order to draw attention in a dramatic and climactic moment to the difference between Zeena and Mattie. When Mattie lets Ethan in the locked back door, standing in the same pose that Zeena did the night before, Ethan is struck by the immense difference between the young, warm, and feminine Mattie and his old, cold, and hard wife Zeena.

Wharton structures the events in this way to allow Mattie to demonstrate her feelings for Ethan without oral communication. Mattie shows Ethan how special he is to her by adding a red ribbon to her hair, laughing, and preparing Ethan's favorite foods.

During the meal, Ethan and Mattie are uncomfortable mentioning Zeena's name. Wharton uses the cat as a stand-in for Zeena. Mattie almost trips over the cat, the cat sits in Zeena's chair during the meal, the cat causes the pickle dish to be broken and sits in Zeena's chair near the fire.

Breaking the pickle dish is a climactic event in the novel. Mattie uses the pickle dish, one of Zeena's most cherished wedding presents, for one of Ethan's favorite foods and to set a special table for Ethan. Using the pickle dish is a trespass against Zeena. Neither Ethan nor Mattie want to acknowledge the trespass to Zeena, and to cover up their guilt, Ethan becomes assertive. He deliberately intends to deceive Zeena by gluing the dish back together in order to protect Mattie. This act enables Ethan to feel a sense of masculine dominance, a feeling he has never experienced with Zeena.

After the meal, Ethan and Mattie communicate easily with each other, enjoying the companionship of the other. Ethan allows himself to imagine that Mattie is his wife and this particular night is typical for them. He talks of going coasting and enjoys the sense of masculine superiority by trying to make Mattie admit she would be afraid. They talk again about sledding, the reference to coasting foreshadowing their smash-up. Ethan and Mattie also talk about Zeena and the fact that she is dissatisfied with Mattie's abilities to perform the household chores. They both agree that Zeena is unpredictable. Wharton foreshadows Zeena's decision to fire Mattie and get a new girl to do the housework.

Wharton associates the imagery of warmth, summer, and natural life with Mattie: her face seems "like a wheat field under a summer breeze"; her pronunciation of the word "married" seems to invoke "a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades"; and the action of her hands over her sewing resembles birds building their nests.

After being startled once again by the cat jumping out of Zeena's rocker, Ethan realizes that the evening has been much like a dream. He and Mattie have done their best to avoid reality and Ethan feels weary and defeated. Ethan kisses the material that Mattie is sewing as a gesture of the intimacy of the evening. They go off to bed, realizing that they each have feelings for the other. It is the first moment that Ethan and Mattie convey their true feelings to one another.

Glossary

scintillating sparkling intellectually; brilliant and witty

draughts deep breaths

imperceptible not plain or distinct to the senses or the mind; especially, so slight, gradual, subtle, etc.; as not to be easily perceived

merino fine wool, originally from Spain

undulations wavy, curving forms or outlines, especially in a series

bandbox a light, round box to hold hats, collars, etc.

flux to flow or stream out

spruce dress in a neat and trim in a smart, dapper way

marrow the innermost, essential, or choicest part; pith

cessation a ceasing, or stopping, either forever or for some time

convivial fond of eating, drinking, and good company; sociable; jovial

taciturnity the fact or condition of being almost always silent or uncommunicative, or not inclined to talk

precedent that precedes; preceding

conjoined joined together; united; combined

rent a hole or gap made by rending or tearing, as a torn place in cloth, a fissure in the earth, etc.

kindled caused to light up; made bright

indolent disliking or avoiding work; idle; lazy

wainscot a wood lining or paneling on the walls of a room; sometimes, specifically, such paneling on the lower part of the walls only

spectral of, having the nature of, or like a specter; phantom; ghostly

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