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.