Analysis: Chapters v-vi

In the midst of Ethan and Mattie’s unspoken feelings for one another, Zeena seems almost supernaturally present. For example, when Mattie vacates Zeena’s chair uneasily, it continues to rock for a few moments, as though Zeena has reoccupied it. The mischievous cat seems to represent its absent owner, doing everything in its power to remind Mattie and Ethan of their obligations to Zeena. The cat creates general chaos by hopping up into Zeena’s seat at supper and upsetting the pickle dish; later, as if to solidify its role as Zeena’s ambassador, the cat jumps up into her place and watches the would-be couple with suspicious eyes. Ethan himself introduces Zeena into the room when, as Mattie sits in Zeena’s rocking chair, he mentally transposes Zeena’s face onto Mattie’s body. This act reveals Ethan’s subconscious desires and fears—although he wishes for Mattie to assume a marital role with him, he also lives in anguished torment with regard to the consequences, which embody themselves fully in the fearful appearance of Zeena’s ghostly visage.

In the close confines of the familiar, lived-in room, Ethan feels trapped and paralyzed by a realm of conventions in which Mattie seems infinitely out of reach. His home carries associations of conformity, convention, and moral order, which stunt his and Mattie’s conversation. This stilted conversation contrasts sharply with the free-flowing, easy conversation Ethan and Mattie enjoyed the evening before, during their nighttime walk. Ethan’s attempt to overcome his shyness is, in a sense, conducted for its own sake, in revolt against the societal strictures that limit him. In the unshakable silence, Ethan’s shy kiss of Mattie’s sewing work is a strictly symbolic gesture, a desperate attempt to act on his emotions—to prove to himself that he is capable of doing so. When Mattie blushes at the mention of Ruth and Ned as lovers, she acknowledges the sexual tension between herself and Ethan, yet she too feels powerless to take any real action.

The subject of sledding is raised a second time in Chapter V, and again it is associated with death. “There’s an ugly corner down by the big elm,” Ethan says. “If a fellow didn’t keep his eyes open he’d go plumb into it.” This assessment is foreshadowing with a vengeance, since the story ends with Mattie and Ethan sledding into that same tree, and Wharton almost seems to be hammering the reader over the head with the information.

Jotham Powell’s presence at breakfast in the morning tempers the tension between Ethan and Mattie. Not only is Jotham another body in the room, but, as Ethan’s hired hand, Jotham symbolizes the workaday world that stands between Ethan and his dream. Significantly, during Ethan’s village journey of the previous afternoon, it is Powell, not Denis Eady, who visits Mattie after delivering Zeena to her train. Eady has been positioned several times as a possible obstacle to a union between Mattie and Ethan, but the true obstacle is not some intrigue on Mattie’s part, but the everyday world. If Mattie is unreachable, the reason is not, as Ethan fantasizes, Denis Eady.

Powell’s neutralizing presence, so unwanted during Zeena’s absence, suddenly becomes desirable to Ethan after his wife’s return. For this reason, Ethan extends a dinner invitation to Powell, hoping to diffuse the tension between him and the two women. Powell’s puzzlingly abrupt refusal adds an air of impending disaster to the upcoming meal. The total change in the household’s atmosphere is further registered when Mattie speaks again: her simple statement that she supposes it is time for supper bears an entirely different set of nuances than the same words held only twenty-four hours before.