Directly following her outburst over the broken dish, Zeena retires upstairs to bed, and a shaken Mattie continues to clear up the kitchen. Ethan makes his usual rounds outside the house and returns to find the kitchen empty. His tobacco pouch and pipe have been laid out on the table next to a brief note in Mattie’s handwriting telling him not to worry. Retreating into his makeshift study, Ethan contemplates the note over and over again, pondering a way out of his unbearable situation.
Flinging aside in disgust a handmade cushion of Zeena’s, Ethan mentally reviews the case of a local man who had deserted his wife in favor of the woman he loved. Encouraged by this precedent, Ethan resolves to run away with Mattie, and he prepares to write a letter of farewell to Zeena, leaving her the farm and the mill. But Ethan pauses at the prospect of starting over without any money, and he pictures the grim situation in which Zeena will be left. Slowly, he comes to the bitter recognition of his plan’s impracticality, and he crumples back to the sofa in tears, falling asleep beneath the light of a large moon in the beautiful winter night sky.
Ethan wakes up cold, stiff, and hungry, and rises in the knowledge that this will be Mattie’s last day beneath his roof. As he stands alone in his study, he hears a step behind him and turns around to see Mattie, full of concern for his well-being after having listened all night for his return upstairs. Ethan, overwhelmed by her show of caring, lights the kitchen fire for her, and, as they sit down to a breakfast of leftovers, they decide not to worry about Zeena’s threats. Ethan heads out to the cow barn, where he encounters Powell. When Powell presses to secure the details for the new hired girl’s arrival and Mattie’s departure, Ethan responds by saying that the matter of Mattie’s dismissal is itself still unresolved. Powell reacts indifferently to this piece of news.
Back in the kitchen, the men enter to find Mattie and Zeena seated at a full breakfast table. Zeena eats heartily, feeds scraps to the cat, and discusses departure and arrival times with Powell. She then endeavors to settle a few final matters with Mattie, as Ethan looks on wordlessly.
After finishing his morning tasks, Ethan tells Powell that he is heading into town and that they should not wait for him to have dinner. Frantically searching for a solution, Ethan decides again to ask Andrew Hale for the advance on the lumber, feeling that Hale would relent if he thought that the money would make a difference in Zeena’s health. With the money, Ethan decides, he will be able to run away with Mattie and start a new life elsewhere. Aiming to intercept Hale before he departs for work, Ethan runs quickly down the hill, and spots the Hale wagon in the distance. Arriving at its side, he finds not Hale but Hale’s wife in the sleigh. She informs him that Hale is resting at home for the morning, and she speaks kindly to him about his fortitude in caring for Zeena before she goes on.
Mrs. Hale’s compassionate words encourage Ethan in his errand: if the Hales feel so sympathetic toward him, he thinks, surely they will advance him the cash. But after a few paces, Ethan’s conscience catches up with his fantasies, and he realizes the extent of the deception in which he is prepared to engage. With his ethics now gaining dominance over his passions, Ethan slowly turns around and heads back to the farm.
Ethan’s defining characteristic in this chapter is indecision. He desperately wants to abandon Zeena but lacks the courage to do so, and he tries to convince himself that it is not his wife but financial reality that is holding him back. The novel evokes the image of a prison contracting around him: “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders hand-cuffing a convict. There was no way out—none.” The phrase bears much truth: in many ways Ethan is indeed a prisoner of circumstances beyond his control. Still, a tinge of melodrama flavors his insistence that there is “no way out”; it seems that if he really wanted to elope with Mattie, he could manage it. Admittedly, such a decision would present financial difficulties, but one senses that Ethan’s cowardice and obedience to social mores, as well as his personal ethics, constitute the real forces that keep him from eloping. He uses money matters to justify his decision not to run away to the part of himself that wants to do so.
As we question the sincerity of Ethan’s financial worries, we also question how realistic his assessment of his and Mattie’s relationship may actually be. Mattie’s behavior clearly demonstrates that she has feelings for Ethan, but Ethan seems to be making a large leap when he imagines her going out west with him; after all, they have shared only one kiss so far. Mattie remains more of an ideal to him, one senses, than a reality; he loves her for herself, but also because she represents an opportunity for “rebellion” against the twin tyrannies of custom and geography, which tie him to his hypochondriac wife and his snowbound farm. She is the “one ray of light,” he thinks, in the darkness of his prison, and his terror over losing her seems to be a terror at the prospect of seeing, like the Ethan Frome on the gravestone, fifty years with Zeena consume his time on earth.
Until now the snowy landscape has symbolized Ethan’s spiritual oppression, with the recurring wintry imagery serving as a reminder of his status as a prisoner of Starkfield. On the morning of Mattie’s departure, however, the landscape is transformed: there is sunlight and “a pale haze of spring” over the snow, so that the wintry fields seem to hold a promise of renewal and rebirth. This promise, of course, Ethan associates with Mattie, and Wharton draws an obvious parallel between Mattie’s shining last name, Silver, and the sudden beauty adopted by nature: “the fields lay like a silver shield under the sun. . . . Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie’s presence.” Again the text emphasizes Frome’s mystical connection to the natural world, as he sees the events of his own life reflected in the beauty around him.
Meanwhile, Ethan’s plans continue to oscillate wildly. At night, in his study, he gives in to despair; the next day, the sun and the hint of spring seem to revive him, and he begins to plan for escape again. Yet, once again, his fears and his sense of conscience overcome him, as the unexpected kind words of Mrs. Hale are enough to thwart his temporary determination to escape from Starkfield. The theme of personal desires being repressed in favor of social order recurs here: Ethan cannot get the money that he needs from the Hales, because to do so would be to violate the complex web of duty and obligation that defines the community of Starkfield. He wants to rebel, but he cannot bring himself to do what is necessary to bring that rebellion to fruition.