Summary and Analysis
Ethan and The Narrator enter the Frome farmhouse. The complaining voice that The Narrator heard outside the door stops. The Narrator notices the shabby furnishings in the room. The tall woman gets up from her chair to prepare supper and the other woman remains in her chair because she is paralyzed.
Ethan comments on the cold temperature in the room and the woman sitting in the chair complains that her companion fell asleep and had not kept the fire going. Ethan introduces The Narrator to his wife, Zeena, who brings the food to the table, and to Mattie, who sits in the chair complaining incessantly.
The next day, The Narrator tells Mrs. Hale and old Mrs. Varnum that he'd stayed at the Frome house. Mrs. Hale is surprised because she and the doctor are the only visitors usually admitted to the Frome house. Mrs. Hale makes the trip now only about twice a year and she prefers to go when she knows Ethan will not be home because she can sense the terrible pain he feels at being trapped in the farmhouse. Because he'd gained entrance to the house, Mrs. Hale feels as though she can divulge more information about the smash-up to The Narrator.
Mrs. Hale relates that after Ethan and Mattie collided with the elm tree, Mattie was taken to the Varnum house. Mrs. Hale (the former Ruth Varnum) was with her when she regained consciousness. Zeena arrived at Ethan's bedside to care for him and, when Mattie was well enough, took her to the farmhouse and cared for her also. Mattie has lived with the Fromes ever since the accident. Mrs. Hale explains that because of her suffering, Mattie has become as querulous as Zeena. She comments that if Mattie had died at the time of the smash-up, Ethan might have been able to live.
Wharton once again shifts the point of view to the first person; The Narrator resumes the story about Ethan Frome that he began in the prologue more than twenty years after the tragedy experienced by Ethan and Mattie. The epilogue is a denouement, or conclusion to the plot of the main story and the frame story as well.
Wharton provides the final touch of irony when she reveals that the "querulous drone" heard by The Narrator comes from Mattie and not Zeena. Mattie has lost her sweet temperament and can be mistaken for Zeena. Zeena never changed from her sickliness, but she has put aside her imagined illnesses and her overdeveloped sense of self-pity to care for the two invalids.
Ethan, the most introspective and sensitive of the characters, has suffered a life in death after the smash-up. The repeated graveyard image is ironic because Ethan had twice speculated about his life in connection with the Frome graveyard. The first time he imagined himself living out his years with Mattie, the second time of enduring his life with Zeena. He did not suspect his fate was to be a nightmarish combination of the two daydreams.
The prologue emphasizes the themes of silence, isolation, and entrapment that Ethan has accepted as his fate because he was unable to violate the rules of society. Ethan did not choose to stand up to Zeena, divorce her, or run away with Mattie. He stood by his marriage vows, right or wrong, and as a result, will live out his life in silence and isolation.
slatternly having the habits of a slattern; dirty; slovenly; untidy
avowal open acknowledgment or declaration