Summary and Analysis
As Chapter 1 begins, Ethan is going into town to walk Mattie Silver home from a dance at the church. Instead of going into the church, Ethan hides in the shadows near a window and watches Mattie dance with Denis Eady. His jealousy prompts Ethan to recall some of the qualities that make Mattie precious to him. He also acknowledges his fear that Mattie has no real affection for him and that Zeena will uncover his growing love for Mattie. This train of thought is triggered by the sight of Mattie treating Eady to some of the mannerisms and affectations that Ethan thought she reserved for him alone. Ethan thinks about Zeena's "sickly" nature and suspects that she feigns part of her illness. He remembers the morning when Zeena observed him shaving and he realized that Zeena is aware of everything that goes on around her — in spite of her illnesses.
Feeling shy because of his recollections of Zeena and his reaction to Mattie's attentions to Eady, Ethan decides to test Mattie and see if she will ride home with Eady. Mattie refuses Eady and as she goes off alone to walk home, Ethan catches up with her. He feels happy by what he perceives as her choice of him over Eady. The couple stops for a moment above the Corbury hill as Mattie tells Ethan about Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum's brush with death as their sled almost hit the elm tree on its downhill run.
Because Ethan is insecure, he intimates that Mattie will be leaving the Fromes' house to marry Eady. Mattie interprets Ethan's comment about the fact that she might want to marry Eady to mean that Zeena wants her gone. She apologizes for her inadequacies as a houseworker, and asks Ethan to clarify what he means. Ethan, however, is unable to communicate his true feelings.
Approaching the farmhouse, Ethan is reassured that Mattie will not marry Eady. He walks arm in arm with her and when she stumbles, uses the opportunity to put his arm around her. When they reach the back door, they cannot find the door key that Zeena always leaves for them. As Ethan searches for the key in the snow, he sees light under the door and Zeena opens it. She hadn't put the key out because she was up; she felt "so mean" she could not sleep. After scolding Ethan and Mattie about the snow on their boots, Zeena starts to go off to bed; Ethan does not want to follow her upstairs to their bedroom but thinks he sees Mattie blink him a warning, so he gives in to his wife and goes to bed.
Chapter 1 begins the main story of Ethan Frome, which takes place about twenty-four years earlier than the prologue and epilogue and describes the three and a half days before and including the "smash-up" (Mattie and Ethan's sledding accident). Wharton shifts the point of view in this chapter from the first person to the limited omniscient point of view. The limited omniscient point of view allows Wharton to relate the thoughts and feelings of only one character. In Ethan Frome, Wharton relates the thoughts and feelings of Ethan.
As the story opens, Wharton continues the imagery and symbolism of the winter setting in Starkfield. The first paragraph describes the winter night when Ethan walks into town to meet Mattie at the church. It is windy, and there is two feet of snow on the ground; the stars shine like icicles and Orion seems to be a "cold fire." ("Cold fire" is an oxymoron — a figure of speech in which terms with opposite meanings are combined.) Wharton's intention is to emphasize the bitterness and hardness of the winter by describing a star in a "sky of iron." On the walk home, when Mattie assures Ethan that she does not want to leave the Frome household, "the iron heavens seemed to melt and rain down sweetness."
Wharton uses imagery associated with winter to characterize Zeena, and imagery of spring and summer to represent Mattie. When Ethan reaches the church, he stays in "pure and frosty darkness," analogous to the silence and isolation he experiences and in opposition to the happy sociability of the interior of the church which he sees in "a mist of heat" caused by the "volcanic fires" from the stove in the room. Ethan feels that Mattie's effect on him is like "the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth." Her face seems to him "like a window that has caught the sunset." On their walk home from the church, when Ethan reveals to Mattie that he had been hiding while she talked to Eady, "her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw." Mattie's changes in mood seem to Ethan to be like "the flit of a bird in the branches." And when he finally gets up the courage to put his arm around Mattie, he feels that walking with her is like "floating on a summer stream."
In contrast to the warm, summer imagery associated with Mattie is the imagery that represents the cold, isolation, and death of spirit inherent during the winter months and apparently present in the Frome farmhouse. Returning home from the church, Ethan and Mattie see farmhouses that seem to be "mute and cold as a gravestone." They see the dead cucumber vine at the Frome farmhouse that looks "like the crape streamer tied to the door for death." And, the kitchen has "the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night." These images are related to the fascination that Ethan finds in his family graveyard, and they are also appropriate to the living death that Ethan and Mattie experience after their accident. Their lives become cold and dead and Ethan experiences more intense silence and isolation than he did before Mattie came into his life.
Wharton reveals important aspects of Ethan's character and introduces readers to Zeena and Mattie. Ethan is an intelligent man; he spent time at a technological college, but had to quit and return home when his father died. His schooling "made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things." Ethan learned that he has the freedom to think and his thoughts have become his world and his life. He retreats into his thoughts to avoid the pain of reality. Ethan's thoughts are sometimes imprecise and irrational — they too often consist of illusions or half-truths rather than clear intuitions or reasoned conclusions. Ethan constantly tries to analyze and control what is happening in the present and dreams and wonders about the future.
Wharton introduces Mattie through Ethan's thoughts while he is waiting for her by the church window. Mattie is first identified as Zeena's cousin, who has come to Starkfield as a household helper, and is allowed to go into town from the farm to attend social activities. According to Ethan's perspective, Mattie is the happy opposite of the cold and complaining Zeena. The tense silence and isolation that dominates Ethan's marriage to Zeena is not present in his relationship with Mattie. In contrast to Zeena, Mattie has a sensitive nature and is able to communicate with Ethan and Ethan with her. Mattie shares his appreciation of natural beauty. When Mattie exclaims that a sunset looks "just as if it was painted," Ethan feels as though he has found his soul mate. As a result of his secret feelings for Mattie, Ethan often tries to escape the reality of his marriage by indulging in self-illusion, or fantasies.
As Ethan continues to watch Mattie from outside the window of the church, he feels fearful because Eady is flirting with Mattie. The fears that Ethan forces on himself are an example of his use of self-illusion as an escape. In his mind, Mattie's smiles and gestures have been just for him. Ethan's unhappy thoughts turn to thoughts of Zeena.
Wharton characterizes Zeena as "sickly." Ethan is suspicious of how sick she really is, suspecting that she may be feigning part of her illness. Ethan's memory of the morning when Zeena watched him shaving serves to foreshadow her character and physical appearance before her dramatic appearance on the Frome back porch: she has a gray complexion, high cheek bones, and a drawling voice. Zeena's vindictive nature casts a pall of dominance over Ethan and Mattie throughout the novel.
As Mattie and Ethan walk home, Wharton emphasizes the difficulty Ethan has in communicating with Mattie. He is unable to express his affection in words or action. When provided the opportunity to reveal his feelings to Mattie, he can only say, "Come along." The isolation and silence that Ethan experiences (a result of the lack of communication in his marriage), have become barriers that inhibit him. Because Ethan is incapable of telling Mattie that he loves her, he "attach(es) a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone." He needs her approval to fuel his romantic illusions. Ethan's insecurity causes him to intimate that her rejection of him is because she intends to marry Eady and leave the Frome farm.
Ethan's love for Mattie as yet remains one-sided and is fed on illusion. The closest Ethan can come to telling Mattie how he feels is to pull her to him and whisper that they will always be together. Ironically, they are passing the graveyard as he pronounces these words, and Wharton foreshadows their death in life.
Mattie tells Ethan about Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum's brush with death when their sled almost hit the elm tree as it was going downhill. This couple serves as a symbol for Ethan and Mattie of the happiness that they might have, and Ethan bases some of his illusions about himself and Mattie on Ned and Ruth's actions. This description of Ned and Ruth's near accident on Corbury hill, plus an earlier mention of Corbury hill and sledding, foreshadows Ethan and Mattie's smash-up.
As Ethan and Mattie near the farmhouse, Ethan sees the dead cucumber vine that reminds him of a funeral crape. He half wishes it were there for Zeena: Ethan subconsciously wishes she were dead. He has the same thought when he cannot find the back-door key and thinks that tramps might have broken into the house.
Wharton hints at Zeena's sickness and disagreeable nature and describes various unattractive physical characteristics. When Zeena opens the back door, Ethan really sees her for the first time. Wharton's description of Zeena emphasizes the hard and cold nature of the woman. She is "tall and angular," with a "flat breast," "puckered throat," and "projecting wrist." She is the ugly reality from which Ethan is trying to escape in his dreams of Mattie.
Zeena has felt "so mean" she could not sleep. In colloquial usage the words denote that she felt ill, but there is an ironic connotation of Zeena's vindictiveness intended as well. It appears that Zeena wields some kind of power over Ethan. When Ethan realized, years ago, that he could not communicate with her, he became acquiescent. In this situation, he gives in to his wife, and with Mattie's warning look, goes to bed.
Dipper the Big Dipper; a dipper-shaped group of stars in the constellation Ursa Major
Orion an equatorial constellation between Taurus and Lepus, containing the bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse
peristyle a row of columns forming an enclosure or supporting a roof
declivity a downward slope or sloping, as of a hill
vexed to give trouble to, esp. in a petty or nagging way; disturb, annoy, irritate, etc.
effrontery unashamed boldness; impudence; audacity; presumption
revelry reveling; noisy merrymaking; boisterous festivity
Aldebaran a galactic cluster
Pleiades a galactic cluster in the constellation Taurus
fatuity stupidity, especially complacent stupidity; smug foolishness
self-effacement the practice of keeping oneself in the background and minimizing one's own actions; modest, retiring behavior
roan of a solid color, as reddish-brown, brown, black, etc., with a thick sprinkling of white hairs; said chiefly of horses
rills little brooks; rivulets
crape streamer a piece of black crepe as a sign of mourning, often worn as a band around the arm
repugnant contradictory; inconsistent; offering resistance; opposed; antagonistic