As soon as Jotham and Zeena set out for Bettsbridge, Ethan departs to deliver the lumber load to Andrew Hale. During his journey, he is consumed by thoughts of his return to Mattie, imagining their first night alone together. After recounting these thoughts, the narrator segues smoothly into a description of the circumstances that surrounded Ethan’s courtship of Zeena and their subsequent marriage. When Zeena came to help Ethan nurse his mother, her arrival made him feel less lonely. Fearing the return of his loneliness when his mother died, Ethan asked Zeena to marry him. He had originally planned to sell the farm and move to a larger town, but Zeena’s illness soon rendered his dream impossible.
Since he mentioned to Zeena that he would be receiving cash for the lumber load, Ethan decides to go ahead and ask Andrew Hale for a small direct payment. After unloading the lumber, Hale invites Ethan into his office, and Ethan requests an advance of fifty dollars. Hale politely refuses, citing his own financial constraints, and after a further exchange of civilities, Ethan leaves Hale to conduct some other business in the village.
With the afternoon drawing to a close, the street stands relatively empty. After an interval of solitude, a swiftly moving horse-drawn sleigh carrying Denis Eady passes Ethan and heads in the direction of the Frome farm. Ethan feels a fleeting pang of jealousy, which he quickly suppresses as unworthy of his affections for Mattie. Under the cover of the Varnum spruces, Ethan happens upon Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, locked together in a clandestine embrace. Realizing that they are being watched, the kissing couple quickly separates and departs. Ethan is left to reminisce about the scene, which, he notes, has taken place in the very spot where he and Mattie stood hesitating the previous night.
Ethan makes the long climb back to the farm. When he arrives, he looks up to see a light issuing from Mattie’s bedroom. He imagines her preparing herself for supper, and he thinks back to the evening of her arrival, when she had taken such care with her appearance. On his way to the house, Ethan passes a gravestone that he has often considered a curiosity. It marks the resting place of one of his ancestors, also named Ethan Frome, as well as that of the ancestor’s wife, who was named Endurance. They dwelled together in peace for fifty years, the stone announces. Ethan wonders if the same words will be written about him and Zeena.
Arriving home, Ethan finds the door locked. Mattie opens it, in her usual dress but with a streak of crimson ribbon in her hair. She has carefully set the supper table for Ethan with festive treats and colorful serving dishes. After Ethan removes his outerwear, he returns to the kitchen, where Mattie has put the teakettle on the table. She playfully admits to entertaining Jotham Powell over a cup of coffee, which makes Ethan prickle slightly with jealousy. At supper, the cat jumps up onto the table, upsetting and breaking a pickle dish. The accident drives Mattie to tears, because Zeena had forbidden her ever to use the dish, a favorite wedding present of Zeena’s that came all the way from Philadelphia. Ethan confidently consoles her, balancing the fragments into a convincing whole high atop the closet, where it would be unlikely that Zeena could detect the breakage. Having averted the disaster, Ethan and Mattie settle back down at the table to finish their supper.
Ethan’s silent fascination with the gravestone outside his house displays the extent to which his life is permeated by the severe, Puritan notion that all human action is predetermined. As he stares at the gravestone, which memorializes the lives and fifty-year marriage of ethan frome and endurance his wife, Ethan believes his own fate is spelled out before him. The former Frome’s wife’s name seems to embody Ethan’s own situation: he no longer lives life but merely endures. Although Ethan fully recognizes the obstacle that Zeena poses to his happiness, he refuses to act to rectify the situation.
Although Ethan believes that the course of his own marriage is fated by the marriage of his ancestor, the narrative plays upon the relationship between past and present within Ethan’s own life. When Ethan attempts to rebel against his situation, his feelings for Mattie develop in a curious replay of his earlier courtship of Zeena. First, Ethan felt he needed Zeena, a family cousin who came to care for his mother. Now, Ethan finds himself falling for Mattie, a family cousin who has come to care for his wife. The narrative plays upon this parallel when Ethan comes home from his business transaction to find the porch door locked, just as he did the previous night—only this time it is Mattie and not Zeena who comes to the door.
The illusion of a man-and-wife evening is set into motion but with a difference, symbolized by the crimson ribbon in Mattie’s hair. In its coloring, the ribbon refers back to the daring cherry-colored scarf that Mattie wears at the dance hall. It alludes to the scarlet letter that Hester Prynne wears to symbolize her transgression in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic Puritan novel The Scarlet Letter.
When the couple sits down to dinner, Wharton begins to describe the nooks and crannies of social artifice. The festive, rather impulsive-seeming, and sexually symbolic dishes Mattie has prepared—blueberries, pickles, doughnuts—indicate Mattie’s awareness of the evening’s clearly illicit nature. Nevertheless, Ethan and Mattie conduct the opening motions of their first supper alone with all of the elaborate gestures and rituals that might occur in the most fashionable cosmopolitan salon. Their stiff formality is shattered—literally—when the cat breaks Zeena’s favorite wedding present, symbolizing the way that Mattie may break up Zeena and Ethan’s marriage. Ethan’s response to the broken dish is also symbolic. Rather than securing the shattered dish permanently with glue or simply throwing away the pieces and admitting that the dish has been broken, Ethan arranges the fragments into a delicate balance, postponing disaster. The dish, and his marriage, appear unbroken, but they may in fact fall to pieces with the slightest disturbance.
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