The increasing gravity of Zeena’s illness—or at least what she claims is the increasing gravity of her illness—invests her with a ruthless authority in these scenes. Wharton compares Zeena’s discussions of her sickness with the behavior of someone chosen for “a great fate.” Zeena doesn’t see her ailment as a curse; she acts as though her ability to live with suffering proves her “elect” status, her virtue, and fortitude. She casts herself as a noble martyr, telling Ethan that although anyone else would need an operation given her condition, she is willing to struggle on without one.
Zeena’s placement of herself in the role of a martyr is certainly Ethan’s greatest obstacle in his attempt to keep Mattie, but even without Zeena claiming the higher moral ground, Ethan would be out of his depth. Zeena calls the shots because Mattie is her relative, not Ethan’s. Likewise, the domestic realm is Zeena’s concern, not Ethan’s. Zeena’s dominance within the household becomes obvious when Ethan, seething, has a sudden urge to strike at her but then inexplicably reverts to a state of passive bewilderment and meekness, retreating downstairs. Similarly, Zeena’s well-timed entrance into the kitchen forces Ethan back into silence just as he has finally managed to reveal his true feelings to Mattie.
Certainly, Ethan realizes that Zeena, a chronic hypochondriac, is exaggerating the severity of her illness in order to gain the upper hand in their relationship. Nevertheless, he remains powerless to oppose her. The self-possessed Zeena so carefully crafts her statements that, though they may be lies, Ethan cannot disprove them. Ethan, on the other hand, lacks grace and articulateness. He clumsily allows Zeena to catch him in his own lie about the lumber advance, and then proves unable to cover his tracks. As Wharton squarely notes, Ethan is no good at lying, and his natural streak of honesty is a factor in his eventual inability to realize his own dreams.
The broken pickle dish that Zeena discovers at the top of the china closet symbolizes the shattered Frome marriage. Mattie is partially responsible for the breaking of both the pickle dish and the marriage, having handled them carelessly, and Ethan cowardly hides the broken state of each. Significantly, though, it was the cat that actually destroyed the dish. Throughout the narrative, the cat is associated with Zeena, so the cat’s destruction of the pickle dish suggests that Zeena must share responsibility for the failure of her marriage. Zeena uses the dish as an excuse to vent anger that in fact stems from the disintegration of the relationships around her. She mourns for the destruction of the dish because she cannot openly mourn the collapse of her marriage and happiness.
Meanwhile, the reader is left uncertain of Mattie’s feelings, because Zeena’s arrival cuts short Mattie’s conversation with Ethan after he kisses her. We assume that she feels the same passion that Ethan does, but her words do not betray anything. Instead of discussing the kiss, she immediately turns the conversation to Zeena and the possibility of her own departure from the household.