Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.
After supper, Mattie clears up while Ethan takes a last turn around the yard. He returns to the kitchen to find Mattie busy at her sewing. Taking up his pipe, he sits down contentedly by the stove. When Ethan calls Mattie in to join him, she sits in Zeena’s rocking chair, and Ethan suddenly imagines the specter of Zeena’s face to have appeared in place of Mattie’s features. Perhaps sensing her companion’s unease and feeling uneasy herself, Mattie returns to her station in the kitchen. In time, Ethan and Mattie’s disquiet begins to melt away, and they begin a carefree conversation about everyday matters—including, once again, the possibility of going sledding on the next moonlit night. However, when Ethan brings up his sighting of Ned and Ruth kissing among the spruces, Mattie suddenly becomes silent.
Once again, Ethan and Mattie find themselves avoiding the subject that is on both of their minds—their relationship. Ethan discusses Mattie’s marriage prospects, and Mattie discusses Zeena’s ill will toward her. Dismissing the subject of Zeena, they fall silent again, until Ethan boldly places his hand on the opposite end of the piece of cloth on which Mattie is working. Mattie, in recognition of this gesture, ceases her activity and waits.
The stillness is interrupted by a clatter. Behind Ethan and Mattie, the cat has leapt from Zeena’s rocking chair in pursuit of a stray mouse. This sudden reminder of Zeena oppresses Ethan, and he impulsively picks up his end of Mattie’s sewing work and kisses it gently. As he does so, the fabric slips from his hold, and he looks up to see Mattie putting away her sewing kit for the evening. The clock strikes eleven. Mattie asks about the fire, and after straightening up the room, she lights a candle and blows out the lamp. As she prepares to climb the stairs, Ethan says goodnight to her, and she responds in kind. Ethan, hearing the door to her room pull shut, realizes that he has not even touched Mattie’s hand during the course of the evening.
At breakfast the following morning, Jotham Powell sits between Ethan and Mattie. Overnight, the wet snow has turned to sleet, creating poor road conditions and giving the men cause to load the remaining lumber at once, but delay their last actual haul until the afternoon. When Powell heads out to harness up the horses, Ethan and Mattie are left alone again, and Ethan has an urge to say, “We shall never be alone again like this.” He stifles it, however, and settles for telling her that he will be home for dinner.
In town, after unloading the lumber, Ethan heads to the Eady store in search of some glue to fix Zeena’s broken dish, but he can’t find any there. Ethan then hastily goes to the widow Homan’s store, where, after a lengthy search, he finally finds a single bottle of glue. In a driving rain, Ethan pushes his team of horses furiously toward home. When he arrives, he puts them away without a thought and dashes into the kitchen.
Ethan triumphantly announces to Mattie that he has obtained the glue, but his excitement quickly dissipates when Mattie whispers that Zeena has returned—she has headed upstairs to her room without so much as a word to Mattie. Out at the barn, while Ethan feeds the horses, Powell returns to put away the sleigh. Ethan invites him to stay for supper, but Powell declines. His refusal throws Ethan into a fit of unease, and he is filled with foreboding as he goes back inside, where Mattie tells him that dinner is ready.
In the midst of Ethan and Mattie’s unspoken feelings for one another, Zeena seems almost supernaturally present. For example, when Mattie vacates Zeena’s chair uneasily, it continues to rock for a few moments, as though Zeena has reoccupied it. The mischievous cat seems to represent its absent owner, doing everything in its power to remind Mattie and Ethan of their obligations to Zeena. The cat creates general chaos by hopping up into Zeena’s seat at supper and upsetting the pickle dish; later, as if to solidify its role as Zeena’s ambassador, the cat jumps up into her place and watches the would-be couple with suspicious eyes. Ethan himself introduces Zeena into the room when, as Mattie sits in Zeena’s rocking chair, he mentally transposes Zeena’s face onto Mattie’s body. This act reveals Ethan’s subconscious desires and fears—although he wishes for Mattie to assume a marital role with him, he also lives in anguished torment with regard to the consequences, which embody themselves fully in the fearful appearance of Zeena’s ghostly visage.
In the close confines of the familiar, lived-in room, Ethan feels trapped and paralyzed by a realm of conventions in which Mattie seems infinitely out of reach. His home carries associations of conformity, convention, and moral order, which stunt his and Mattie’s conversation. This stilted conversation contrasts sharply with the free-flowing, easy conversation Ethan and Mattie enjoyed the evening before, during their nighttime walk. Ethan’s attempt to overcome his shyness is, in a sense, conducted for its own sake, in revolt against the societal strictures that limit him. In the unshakable silence, Ethan’s shy kiss of Mattie’s sewing work is a strictly symbolic gesture, a desperate attempt to act on his emotions—to prove to himself that he is capable of doing so. When Mattie blushes at the mention of Ruth and Ned as lovers, she acknowledges the sexual tension between herself and Ethan, yet she too feels powerless to take any real action.
The subject of sledding is raised a second time in Chapter V, and again it is associated with death. “There’s an ugly corner down by the big elm,” Ethan says. “If a fellow didn’t keep his eyes open he’d go plumb into it.” This assessment is foreshadowing with a vengeance, since the story ends with Mattie and Ethan sledding into that same tree, and Wharton almost seems to be hammering the reader over the head with the information.
Jotham Powell’s presence at breakfast in the morning tempers the tension between Ethan and Mattie. Not only is Jotham another body in the room, but, as Ethan’s hired hand, Jotham symbolizes the workaday world that stands between Ethan and his dream. Significantly, during Ethan’s village journey of the previous afternoon, it is Powell, not Denis Eady, who visits Mattie after delivering Zeena to her train. Eady has been positioned several times as a possible obstacle to a union between Mattie and Ethan, but the true obstacle is not some intrigue on Mattie’s part, but the everyday world. If Mattie is unreachable, the reason is not, as Ethan fantasizes, Denis Eady.
Powell’s neutralizing presence, so unwanted during Zeena’s absence, suddenly becomes desirable to Ethan after his wife’s return. For this reason, Ethan extends a dinner invitation to Powell, hoping to diffuse the tension between him and the two women. Powell’s puzzlingly abrupt refusal adds an air of impending disaster to the upcoming meal. The total change in the household’s atmosphere is further registered when Mattie speaks again: her simple statement that she supposes it is time for supper bears an entirely different set of nuances than the same words held only twenty-four hours before.