The morning after the dance, Ethan heads out early to the wood lot to attend to some hauling. He and Zeena have not exchanged a single word since retiring the previous night, during which Ethan lay awake for many hours, preoccupied by his thoughts of Mattie. As he hauls the wood, Ethan regrets that he didn’t kiss Mattie when they were alone together the night before.
Ethan’s mind then turns to the relationship between Mattie and Zeena, which has been chilly ever since Mattie came to live in Starkfield, after her father died. A sense of dread and foreboding fills Ethan, and he channels his fear by throwing himself into his work until midday. He considers driving his lumber load into the village at once, but then thinks better of it and returns to the house to check on the women. Coming in, he is surprised to see Zeena sitting at the table in her best dress, with a small piece of luggage at her side. She says that she cannot stand her recurring pains any longer and has resolved to set out for Bettsbridge on an overnight visit in order to see a new doctor. Ethan quickly agrees to Zeena’s proposal that Jotham Powell, the hired man, drive her to the train station. He would drive her himself, he says, but he must collect a direct cash payment from Andrew Hale upon his delivery of a load of wood that afternoon. Ethan’s excuse is a lie, since Hale is unlikely to pay up, but Ethan has no desire to go for a long ride with his wife.
As Ethan toils at his farm work, his thoughts of Mattie stream into a series of worries that reveal his capacity as a “seer,” one who senses the subtle signs of looming tragedy. Ethan’s thoughts also tell us about the nature of the tragic events to come, so that we too become seer[s] of a sort. Wharton associates Ethan’s insights into the future with his ability to predict rain, despite appearances to the contrary on “stainless” mornings. We can perceive that this statement is a metaphor for the state of Ethan and Mattie’s relationship: although Ethan’s conduct with Mattie has hitherto remained stainless, from our knowledge of his desire for her, we can predict the “storm” that they will soon experience. Ethan’s reaction to his foresight is a passive denial. As he grows increasingly aware of an inevitable disaster surrounding his passion for Mattie, he throws himself into his logging with extra zeal, as though hard work will enable him to escape from what we already understand to be predestined.
As Ethan muses on his present love for Mattie, the narrator muses on Ethan’s loveless marriage, undertaken out of fear of misery rather than true devotion. The moment introduces one of the novel’s themes: the conflict between warm inner desire and cold external realities. The theme receives emphasis when, in subsequent chapters, we learn of Ethan’s dream to leave his farm and work in a town—perhaps even as an engineer—and see how circumstances conspire to thwart him.
Again and again, Wharton links Starkfield’s weather to the characters’ emotional states to show that the external world takes precedence over the internal landscape of a character’s being. No description in the novel is neutral. We learn that the bleakness of the New England winters contributed to the sense of loneliness and depression that pushed Ethan into Zeena’s sickly arms: the marriage between Ethan and Zeena might not have happened if Ethan’s mother “had died in spring instead of winter.” Every setting seems to restrict, inhibit, and debilitate, generating sickness and disability—another of the novel’s themes. By this point in the novel, we have learned of Ethan’s mother’s illness, of Zeena’s maladies, and of the disabilities that Ethan suffers by the end of the story’s plot.
Zeena’s unexpected departure for Bettsbridge can be seen as evidence of either naïveté or mistrust. Certainly, departure is the last move that one would expect of a suspicious wife. For this reason, Ethan assumes—logically, but perhaps foolishly—that Zeena must truly need medical attention. A more skeptical interpreter of Zeena’s trip might consider it a clever attempt to learn the true nature of Ethan’s feelings for Mattie by putting those feelings to the test. Whatever the case, Ethan seems unable even to suspect his wife of having an ulterior motive. Ethan’s attitude toward his wife lacks subtlety, as does Wharton’s portrayal of Zeena as an ugly shrew. Neither the author nor Ethan seems to have any sympathy for Zeena, and, consequently, neither do we. Zeena exists not as a complicated character but as a stumbling block to Ethan’s happiness with Mattie.
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