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Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton
Summary Chapter ii
Summary Chapter ii

Wharton’s caricature-like depiction of Zeena makes her seem like an old woman who possesses neither beauty nor kindness. Juxtaposed with Mattie, Zeena serves as a foil (a character whose attitudes or emotions contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character), highlighting Mattie’s vigor. Mattie seems to embody health, with her vibrant scarf and her last name, Silver, which suggests brightness. Zeena, on the other hand, speaks in a “flat whine,” and when she appears at the doorway to greet Ethan, Wharton dwells on her “flat breast,” “puckered throat,” and the “hollows and prominences” of her face. The contest for Ethan’s heart is no contest at all—Mattie seems to be Ethan’s soul-mate, Zeena a nagging, hypochondriacal shrew.

Because the reader already knows, by the time the narrator meets Ethan, that Ethan is disfigured, a mood of foreboding hangs over the story. The “throng of disregarded hints and menaces” that crowd Ethan’s mind at the dance foreshadows the impending danger. The conversation about the sledding hill, with its mention of the potentially deadly elm, also constitutes a deliberate and obvious foreshadowing of later events.