Summary and Analysis
That night, after Ethan is sure Zeena is asleep, he goes downstairs to his cold study to think about all that had happened that evening. He has the note that Mattie had written him earlier in the evening telling him not to trouble himself with the situation. The note was the only note Mattie had ever written him, and in a way, it is the first real sign of communication of her affection for him.
Ethan lays down on the sofa and feels something poking his cheek. He realizes it is a cushion Zeena made for him and he throws it across the room. Ethan considers rebelling against Zeena, violating the rules of society, and divorcing her to run away with Mattie. He recalls the story of a man who left his wife by fleeing to the West with his lover and leaving his farm to his wife. Ethan thinks the plan is a good one and begins to write a note of explanation to Zeena. He realizes that money is a problem. He doesn't have money for train fare for himself and Mattie, and Zeena would not be able to get any money from the sale of the farm or mill.
Mattie finds him sleeping in his study the next morning. He gets up and they begin the morning chores. At breakfast, Zeena confirms her decision of the previous night by telling Jotham that Daniel Byrne is going to pick up Mattie's trunk and take it to the train station.
Ethan decides to ask Andrew Hale for the money owed him once again, but on the way he meets Mrs. Hale who is sympathetic towards him. He realizes that he can't ask for the money and must accept the reality of the situation.
While he's home for lunch, Ethan defies Zeena and refuses to allow Jotham to drive Mattie to the train station, insisting that he drive Mattie himself.
Zeena retires to her bedroom, and Mattie and Ethan begin their journey to the train station. Ethan tries to tell Mattie of his wish to run away with her, and she produces the note he'd written the night before that she'd found in his study. They confirm that their imagined love for each other is real.
They arrive at the sledding hill and decide to make good on the plans they had to go sledding together. After they successfully coast down the hill once, they kiss good-bye. Because they don't wish to be separated, ever, they decide to commit suicide by sledding into the elm tree. As they start down the hill and approach the elm tree, Ethan has an ugly vision of Zeena's face that causes him to swerve the sled; but he resumes the course and steers the sled into the elm tree.
As Ethan regains consciousness, his vision returns and he tries to determine if the star he is looking at is Sirius. As his hearing returns, he hears the sound of a small animal calling out in pain. He becomes aware that the sound is coming from under his hand, which is on Mattie's face in the snow. He hears his horse whinny and is reminded that the horse needs to be fed.
When Ethan goes to his study and lays down on the sofa, a cushion that Zeena made for him — the only piece of needlework that Zeena had ever done — pokes him in the cheek. Ethan throws the cushion across the room. His action is symbolic of his growing rejection of Zeena. He thinks of going West with Mattie and of escaping from Zeena, but realizes that he is a prisoner of circumstance. Wharton uses the image of captivity to convey Ethan's feeling of despair; "the inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict," "he was a prisoner for life." Ethan is caught in physical and mental darkness. Wharton contrasts Ethan's gloom with a sudden, mocking illumination of the night sky as the "pure moon" reveals all the natural beauty of the landscape that Ethan associates with Mattie. The moon also foreshadows the sledding accident as Ethan remembers that this is the night when he had promised to take Mattie sledding.
After Mattie finds him and they begin the morning chores, things don't seem so bleak to Ethan. His self-deceptive optimism about Mattie takes over his thoughts, and despite his earlier realization that Zeena's decision is unchangeable, he decides that things are not hopeless and that he can find a way to keep Mattie at home with him.
At breakfast when Zeena confirms to Jotham that Mattie would definitely be leaving, Ethan's subservience to her is again evident. He does not mention his thoughts or intentions. He fails, once again, to assert himself over his wife.
Again, Ethan feels defeated. His reaction is to rebel against Zeena. He is determined to do something to change the situation. He decides to go to Andrew Hale once again for the money he is owed, but on the way, he meets Mrs. Hale, who is sympathetic towards him. His conscience prevents him from asking for the money. Wharton makes it clear that Ethan is inescapably bound within the segment of society that he inhabits. Part of his tragedy is that his aspirations and dreams would take him beyond the icy world of Starkfield. His fate, however, is to serve out his life chained to a frigid, quarrelsome wife and to the crippled remains of a once beautiful girl. Wharton makes sure that there is no possible alternative of escape in Ethan's mind when he is faced with the decision of whether or not to attempt suicide with Mattie. His conscience forces him to turn away from the Hales and to return to the farm.
After Ethan confronts Zeena and insists that he will drive Mattie to the train station, Wharton does not bring Zeena into the action again. Zeena retires, triumphant, to her bedroom. Wharton begins to build the suspense that leads to the climax of the story.
As Mattie and Ethan begin their ride, Ethan feels almost happy. He takes a route that leads them to Shadow Pond. The name "Shadow" is suggestive of the memories that Ethan and Mattie have of the spot; as well, it connotes the inability that Mattie and Ethan have of really communicating their feelings to each other. The incident in which Ethan found Mattie's locket when they attended a church picnic, soon after Mattie had arrived at the Frome household, is symbolic of the love that he found with it. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the gold trinket represents Mattie's heart. But, at the time it happened, the incident only foreshadowed what might come to pass. Similarly, their return visit to the spot causes Ethan and Mattie to wonder about their love without speaking about it. It is Mattie who realizes that they must give in to the pressures of time and continue on their trip to the station.
The descriptions Wharton provides of the drive to the pond and the pond itself are rich with images of natural beauty, a contrast to the stark and cold images that are characteristic of most of the novel. The couple reminisces about the picnic the previous summer; Mattie sat looking "pretty as a picture in (her) pink hat," there was a "pebbly beach," and they sat together on a tree trunk in the sun.
As time passes, increasing darkness prevails over the imagery as Ethan and Mattie approach their sledding accident. Wharton suggests the mood of the tragic climax and the characters' thoughts of death when she has the darkness come "dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs." The black veil is evocative of a funeral and the hemlock of poison.
The theme of entrapment in a loveless marriage due to the unwillingness to violate the rules of society is again evident. Ethan tells Mattie that he is "tied hand and foot," and "there isn't a thing I can do." Mattie understands that it is not possible to escape from the situation.
Mattie reveals that she has the note Ethan wrote to Zeena the previous night, and his love for her is clear. Mattie and Ethan confirm that their love for each other is indeed real. The revelation is also sad because they must part. The couple first voice their feelings that they'd rather be dead than be apart.
Wharton creates suspense as the couple arrives at the sledding hill and decide to go sledding. After the first ride, Ethan asks Mattie if she was scared of running into the elm tree. The idea of fear signals the mounting pressure of the death wish building in the two lovers. It also foreshadows the accident. As the conversation about fear and the thrilling exaltation of the sled ride have passed, silence, darkness, and cold are emphasized as the couple climbs up the hill. Ethan thinks this will be their last walk together. His thoughts foreshadow not only the coming accident, but also Mattie's future as a cripple.
As the idea of a mutual death gains momentum, Ethan is caught in a frenzy of love for Mattie that blots out his former conscientious thoughts of not leaving Zeena to fend for herself. Ethan is overwhelmed by the knowledge that Mattie loves him. Only the touch of Mattie's cold cheek and the whistle of the approaching train bring him out of his vision.
The idea of mutual suicide is now identified in Ethan's mind as a sort of quest to preserve the love and beauty of his relationship with Mattie. Passion, not reason, dominates his mind; appropriately, the darkness has increased and his usually sharp vision is dimmed, just as his rational faculties are dimmed in the obscurity of passion.
As they coast downhill, the last thing Ethan sees before the tree is a vision of his wife's face, a manifestation of his conception of her as an alien presence. It seems to try to prevent him from attaining the goal of the tree, but he maneuvers around it. The vision is a symbolic reminder that Ethan will never escape Zeena's dominance, and that he will fail tragically in his attempt to carry away in death the beauty and love he found with Mattie.
After the crash into the tree, Wharton describes what Ethan sees and feels; he had wondered briefly what it would be like after death but now he slowly realizes he is still alive. Mattie's beauty has turned into the twisted, ugly reality that Ethan will have to bear for the rest of his life.
The accident results in the destruction of two lives. Wharton does not tell readers that the attempt at death has failed and that Ethan and Mattie are condemned to live out their crippled lives in Starkfield. Instead, readers can sense with Ethan the quiet acceptance of his fate when he thinks that it is time to feed his horse. For Ethan, there is no escape from the silence, isolation, and entrapment.
protuberances parts or things that protrude; projections; bulges; swellings
injunction an enjoining; bidding; command
lumbago rheumatic pain in the lumbar region; backache, especially in the lower part of the back
repining a feeling or expression of unhappiness or discontent; complaint; fretting
mottlings blotches, streaks, and spots of different colors or shades
boles tree trunks
facetious joking or trying to be jocular, especially at an inappropriate time
uncouth uncultured; crude; boorish
adjured entreated solemnly; appealed to earnestly
discursively in a manner characterized by wandering from one topic to another or skimming over many apparently unconnected subjects; in a rambling, desultory, or digressive manner
audacity bold courage; daring
lineaments features of the body, usually of the face, especially with regard to its outline
Sirius a binary star in the constellation Canis Major, the brightest star in the sky