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As soon as Jotham and Zeena set out for Bettsbridge, Ethan
departs to deliver the lumber load to Andrew Hale. During his journey,
he is consumed by thoughts of his return to Mattie, imagining their
first night alone together. After recounting these thoughts, the
narrator segues smoothly into a description of the circumstances
that surrounded Ethan’s courtship of Zeena and their subsequent
marriage. When Zeena came to help Ethan nurse his mother, her arrival
made him feel less lonely. Fearing the return of his loneliness
when his mother died, Ethan asked Zeena to marry him. He had originally planned
to sell the farm and move to a larger town, but Zeena’s illness
soon rendered his dream impossible.
Since he mentioned to Zeena that he would be receiving
cash for the lumber load, Ethan decides to go ahead and ask Andrew
Hale for a small direct payment. After unloading the lumber, Hale
invites Ethan into his office, and Ethan requests an advance of
fifty dollars. Hale politely refuses, citing his own financial constraints,
and after a further exchange of civilities, Ethan leaves Hale to
conduct some other business in the village.
With the afternoon drawing to a close, the street stands
relatively empty. After an interval of solitude, a swiftly moving
horse-drawn sleigh carrying Denis Eady passes Ethan and heads in
the direction of the Frome farm. Ethan feels a fleeting pang of
jealousy, which he quickly suppresses as unworthy of his affections
for Mattie. Under the cover of the Varnum spruces, Ethan happens
upon Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, locked together in a clandestine
embrace. Realizing that they are being watched, the kissing couple
quickly separates and departs. Ethan is left to reminisce about
the scene, which, he notes, has taken place in the very spot where
he and Mattie stood hesitating the previous night.
Ethan makes the long climb back to the farm. When he arrives, he
looks up to see a light issuing from Mattie’s bedroom. He imagines
her preparing herself for supper, and he thinks back to the evening
of her arrival, when she had taken such care with her appearance.
On his way to the house, Ethan passes a gravestone that he has often
considered a curiosity. It marks the resting place of one of his
ancestors, also named Ethan Frome, as well as that of the ancestor’s
wife, who was named Endurance. They dwelled together
in peace for fifty years, the stone announces. Ethan wonders
if the same words will be written about him and Zeena.
Arriving home, Ethan finds the door locked. Mattie opens
it, in her usual dress but with a streak of crimson ribbon in her
hair. She has carefully set the supper table for Ethan with festive
treats and colorful serving dishes. After Ethan removes his outerwear,
he returns to the kitchen, where Mattie has put the teakettle on
the table. She playfully admits to entertaining Jotham Powell over
a cup of coffee, which makes Ethan prickle slightly with jealousy.
At supper, the cat jumps up onto the table, upsetting and breaking
a pickle dish. The accident drives Mattie to tears, because Zeena
had forbidden her ever to use the dish, a favorite wedding present
of Zeena’s that came all the way from Philadelphia. Ethan confidently
consoles her, balancing the fragments into a convincing whole high
atop the closet, where it would be unlikely that Zeena could detect
the breakage. Having averted the disaster, Ethan and Mattie settle
back down at the table to finish their supper.
Ethan’s silent fascination with the gravestone outside
his house displays the extent to which his life is permeated by
the severe, Puritan notion that all human action is predetermined.
As he stares at the gravestone, which memorializes the lives and
fifty-year marriage of ethan frome and endurance his
wife, Ethan believes his own fate is spelled out before
him. The former Frome’s wife’s name seems to embody Ethan’s own
situation: he no longer lives life but merely endures. Although
Ethan fully recognizes the obstacle that Zeena poses to his happiness,
he refuses to act to rectify the situation.
Although Ethan believes that the course of his own marriage
is fated by the marriage of his ancestor, the narrative plays upon
the relationship between past and present within Ethan’s own life. When
Ethan attempts to rebel against his situation, his feelings for Mattie
develop in a curious replay of his earlier courtship of Zeena. First,
Ethan felt he needed Zeena, a family cousin who came to care for
his mother. Now, Ethan finds himself falling for Mattie, a family cousin
who has come to care for his wife. The narrative plays upon this
parallel when Ethan comes home from his business transaction to
find the porch door locked, just as he did the previous night—only
this time it is Mattie and not Zeena who comes to the door.
The illusion of a man-and-wife evening is set into motion
but with a difference, symbolized by the crimson ribbon in Mattie’s
hair. In its coloring, the ribbon refers back to the daring cherry-colored scarf
that Mattie wears at the dance hall. It alludes to the scarlet letter
that Hester Prynne wears to symbolize her transgression in Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s classic Puritan novel The Scarlet Letter.
When the couple sits down to dinner, Wharton begins to
describe the nooks and crannies of social artifice. The festive,
rather impulsive-seeming, and sexually symbolic dishes Mattie has
prepared—blueberries, pickles, doughnuts—indicate Mattie’s awareness
of the evening’s clearly illicit nature. Nevertheless, Ethan and
Mattie conduct the opening motions of their first supper alone with
all of the elaborate gestures and rituals that might occur in the
most fashionable cosmopolitan salon. Their stiff formality is shattered—literally—when
the cat breaks Zeena’s favorite wedding present, symbolizing the
way that Mattie may break up Zeena and Ethan’s marriage. Ethan’s
response to the broken dish is also symbolic. Rather than securing
the shattered dish permanently with glue or simply throwing away
the pieces and admitting that the dish has been broken, Ethan arranges
the fragments into a delicate balance, postponing disaster. The
dish, and his marriage, appear unbroken, but they may in fact fall
to pieces with the slightest disturbance.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ethan Frome!