Ethan’s defining characteristic in this chapter is indecision. He desperately wants to abandon Zeena but lacks the courage to do so, and he tries to convince himself that it is not his wife but financial reality that is holding him back. The novel evokes the image of a prison contracting around him: “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders hand-cuffing a convict. There was no way out—none.” The phrase bears much truth: in many ways Ethan is indeed a prisoner of circumstances beyond his control. Still, a tinge of melodrama flavors his insistence that there is “no way out”; it seems that if he really wanted to elope with Mattie, he could manage it. Admittedly, such a decision would present financial difficulties, but one senses that Ethan’s cowardice and obedience to social mores, as well as his personal ethics, constitute the real forces that keep him from eloping. He uses money matters to justify his decision not to run away to the part of himself that wants to do so.
As we question the sincerity of Ethan’s financial worries, we also question how realistic his assessment of his and Mattie’s relationship may actually be. Mattie’s behavior clearly demonstrates that she has feelings for Ethan, but Ethan seems to be making a large leap when he imagines her going out west with him; after all, they have shared only one kiss so far. Mattie remains more of an ideal to him, one senses, than a reality; he loves her for herself, but also because she represents an opportunity for “rebellion” against the twin tyrannies of custom and geography, which tie him to his hypochondriac wife and his snowbound farm. She is the “one ray of light,” he thinks, in the darkness of his prison, and his terror over losing her seems to be a terror at the prospect of seeing, like the Ethan Frome on the gravestone, fifty years with Zeena consume his time on earth.
Until now the snowy landscape has symbolized Ethan’s spiritual oppression, with the recurring wintry imagery serving as a reminder of his status as a prisoner of Starkfield. On the morning of Mattie’s departure, however, the landscape is transformed: there is sunlight and “a pale haze of spring” over the snow, so that the wintry fields seem to hold a promise of renewal and rebirth. This promise, of course, Ethan associates with Mattie, and Wharton draws an obvious parallel between Mattie’s shining last name, Silver, and the sudden beauty adopted by nature: “the fields lay like a silver shield under the sun. . . . Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie’s presence.” Again the text emphasizes Frome’s mystical connection to the natural world, as he sees the events of his own life reflected in the beauty around him.
Meanwhile, Ethan’s plans continue to oscillate wildly. At night, in his study, he gives in to despair; the next day, the sun and the hint of spring seem to revive him, and he begins to plan for escape again. Yet, once again, his fears and his sense of conscience overcome him, as the unexpected kind words of Mrs. Hale are enough to thwart his temporary determination to escape from Starkfield. The theme of personal desires being repressed in favor of social order recurs here: Ethan cannot get the money that he needs from the Hales, because to do so would be to violate the complex web of duty and obligation that defines the community of Starkfield. He wants to rebel, but he cannot bring himself to do what is necessary to bring that rebellion to fruition.