3. He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. 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.
This quote sums up Ethan’s state of mind in the middle of Chapter V, when Zeena is away and he is alone in the house with Mattie. It touches on one of the themes of the work—namely, the conflict between desire and social or moral order—as the warm living room, with all its reminders of marital obligation and traditional ethics, makes Mattie seem infinitely out of reach.
The previous night, Ethan reflects, circumstances had seemed different, but then he was out in the “open irresponsible night.” The indoors embodies the opposite force, the force of responsibility and duty, which literally walls Ethan in and prevents him from acting on his passion for Mattie. The outdoors, in contrast, represents the setting where both Ethan and Mattie seem most in their element: elsewhere in the book, both appreciate the beauties of the snow and woods, and they appear to enjoy an almost mystical connection with nature.
Yet the forces represented by the indoors ultimately prove to be more powerful: Ethan is a man of conscience, and he cannot bring himself to violate the dictates of his society’s moral order. Furthermore, because he is forced to choose between desire and convention in his living room of all places, his choice is almost predestined: he cannot give in to rebellion in this place, with its reminders of everything that the moral order is supposed to protect—namely, the hearth and home.