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The morning after the dance, Ethan heads out early to
the wood lot to attend to some hauling. He and Zeena have not exchanged
a single word since retiring the previous night, during which Ethan
lay awake for many hours, preoccupied by his thoughts of Mattie.
As he hauls the wood, Ethan regrets that he didn’t kiss Mattie when
they were alone together the night before.
Ethan’s mind then turns to the relationship between Mattie
and Zeena, which has been chilly ever since Mattie came to live
in Starkfield, after her father died. A sense of dread and foreboding
fills Ethan, and he channels his fear by throwing himself into his
work until midday. He considers driving his lumber load into the
village at once, but then thinks better of it and returns to the
house to check on the women. Coming in, he is surprised to see Zeena
sitting at the table in her best dress, with a small piece of luggage
at her side. She says that she cannot stand her recurring pains
any longer and has resolved to set out for Bettsbridge on an overnight
visit in order to see a new doctor. Ethan quickly agrees to Zeena’s
proposal that Jotham Powell, the hired man, drive her to the train
station. He would drive her himself, he says, but he must collect
a direct cash payment from Andrew Hale upon his delivery of a load
of wood that afternoon. Ethan’s excuse is a lie, since Hale is unlikely
to pay up, but Ethan has no desire to go for a long ride with his
As Ethan toils at his farm work, his thoughts of Mattie
stream into a series of worries that reveal his capacity as a “seer,”
one who senses the subtle signs of looming tragedy. Ethan’s thoughts
also tell us about the nature of the tragic events to come, so that
we too become seer[s] of a sort. Wharton associates Ethan’s insights
into the future with his ability to predict rain, despite appearances
to the contrary on “stainless” mornings. We can perceive that this
statement is a metaphor for the state of Ethan and Mattie’s relationship: although
Ethan’s conduct with Mattie has hitherto remained stainless, from
our knowledge of his desire for her, we can predict the “storm”
that they will soon experience. Ethan’s reaction to his foresight
is a passive denial. As he grows increasingly aware of an inevitable
disaster surrounding his passion for Mattie, he throws himself into
his logging with extra zeal, as though hard work will enable him
to escape from what we already understand to be predestined.
As Ethan muses on his present love for Mattie, the narrator muses
on Ethan’s loveless marriage, undertaken out of fear of misery rather
than true devotion. The moment introduces one of the novel’s themes:
the conflict between warm inner desire and cold external realities.
The theme receives emphasis when, in subsequent chapters, we learn
of Ethan’s dream to leave his farm and work in a town—perhaps even
as an engineer—and see how circumstances conspire to thwart him.
Again and again, Wharton links Starkfield’s weather to
the characters’ emotional states to show that the external world
takes precedence over the internal landscape of a character’s being.
No description in the novel is neutral. We learn that the bleakness
of the New England winters contributed to the sense of loneliness
and depression that pushed Ethan into Zeena’s sickly arms: the marriage between
Ethan and Zeena might not have happened if Ethan’s mother “had died
in spring instead of winter.” Every setting seems to restrict, inhibit,
and debilitate, generating sickness and disability—another of the
novel’s themes. By this point in the novel, we have learned of Ethan’s
mother’s illness, of Zeena’s maladies, and of the disabilities that
Ethan suffers by the end of the story’s plot.
Zeena’s unexpected departure for Bettsbridge can be seen
as evidence of either naïveté or mistrust. Certainly, departure
is the last move that one would expect of a suspicious wife. For
this reason, Ethan assumes—logically, but perhaps foolishly—that
Zeena must truly need medical attention. A more skeptical interpreter
of Zeena’s trip might consider it a clever attempt to learn the
true nature of Ethan’s feelings for Mattie by putting those feelings
to the test. Whatever the case, Ethan seems unable even to suspect
his wife of having an ulterior motive. Ethan’s attitude toward his
wife lacks subtlety, as does Wharton’s portrayal of Zeena as an
ugly shrew. Neither the author nor Ethan seems to have any sympathy
for Zeena, and, consequently, neither do we. Zeena exists not as
a complicated character but as a stumbling block to Ethan’s happiness with
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ethan Frome!