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.
Entering Frome’s kitchen, the narrator is unable to tell which of the two women in the room had been speaking upon the men’s arrival. Both are slight and gray-haired, and one starts preparing the evening meal as the other sits huddled in the corner by the stove. The narrator observes the marked poverty and squalor of the place, and Frome notes the coldness of the room with a tone of -apology. The woman in the corner attempts to explain, blaming the other woman for having only just started the fire. The narrator then recognizes the whining voice he heard previously as the voice of the seated woman. As the other woman comes back around to the table to set a pie in place, Frome introduces her to the narrator as his wife and then proceeds to introduce the seated woman as Miss Mattie Silver.
The next morning, the narrator returns to his lodgings, to the great relief of Mrs. Hale, who had given him up for dead. Mrs. Hale and her mother, Mrs. Varnum, are most surprised to learn of Frome’s exceeding generosity toward the narrator, and they react with downright amazement at his announcement that he has spent the night at the Frome household. The narrator senses a strong hint of curiosity in the two women regarding Frome’s hospitality. Mrs. Hale submits that she has spent a great deal of time visiting the Fromes, but for the last twenty years hardly anyone but herself and their doctors has ever set foot in the household.
After supper, Mrs. Varnum retires for the evening, and Mrs. Hale and the narrator sit in the parlor for a further conversation about the Fromes. Mrs. Hale begins to recount the terrible aftermath of the smash-up, but the mere memory of Mattie’s convalescence suffices to bring her to tears. Gathering her wits, Mrs. Hale continues with her tale, describing to the narrator Zeena’s mysteriously silent reaction to the events and her gracious decision to receive Mattie back into their household as soon as she could be moved.
Responding to the narrator’s gentle queries, Mrs. Hale explains that Mattie has lived with the Fromes ever since and that Zeena has done much of the caretaking for the three of them. Expressing pity for them and marveling at their resilience, Mrs. Hale seems to have concluded her account; however, she then collects herself to make one final remark. Removing her spectacles and leaning toward the narrator in confidence, she declares in a lowered voice that Mattie would have been better off dying after the accident, for, as it stands, “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.”
In this brief epilogue, Wharton summons us back to the present, resuming the narrator’s description of his visit to the Frome household. The result is an abrupt and curtailed view of Frome’s plight, of which we now hold a background understanding. As she did in the novel’s opening scenes, Wharton once again delays the revelation of character, describing the individuals at hand before she names them. From the neutral narrator’s description, it is initially difficult to tell which woman is which, and when we hear that one speaks in a “whine,” the word Wharton uses earlier to describe Zeena’s voice, we assume that this complainer is Zeena—only to realize, with a trace of horror, that the voice belongs to Mattie.
Thus, everything comes full circle, and the cyclical nature of life on the farm is embodied in the terrible fate of Ethan and the women. Instead of finding escape in suicide, he and Mattie have ended up in a state of living death, in which all Mattie’s vitality has been leeched away, and she has transformed into a carbon copy of her former opposite, Zeena. Zeena herself, appropriately enough, has been restored to greater health by the necessity of caring for her disabled husband and cousin—as if she can be healthy only when others suffer. Certain aspects of the characters have remained constant throughout. Always quiet and inscrutable, Zeena remains impossible to interpret, and the reader is left ignorant of her opinions about the situation. “Nobody knows Zeena’s thoughts,” Mrs. Hale says, and the text confirms that her “pale opaque eyes . . . revealed nothing and reflected nothing.” Nonetheless, one can imagine her taking a kind of perverse delight in the failure of Ethan and Mattie’s attempt to escape her, as well as in the brutal justice of their fate.
Once again we witness the recurrence of the theme of physical surroundings as destiny. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie all have become trapped—by snow and poverty and their disabilities—in the decaying farmhouse, and they will be trapped there forever, as Mrs. Hale’s closing words remind us: they will join the other Fromes in the graveyard, alongside the headstone of the earlier Ethan Frome and his wife, Endurance. And indeed, for Ethan himself, endurance is all that remains: his attempt at rebellion and escape has failed, and he ends where he began, trapped by illness, poverty, and winter in Starkfield, waiting for death.