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Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton


THE STORY, continued

CHAPTER V

Supper is over. You'll now see whether Ethan's dream will be realized- whether he'll have a cozy evening by the fire with Mattie.

Mattie sits by the lamp with a bit of sewing. Feeling content after a good day's work, Ethan stretches his stocking feet to the fire and lights his pipe. He asks Mattie to sit closer, for he wants to look at her. When she settles in Zeena's rocker, Ethan has a momentary shock. He sees Zeena's face instead of Mattie's.

NOTE: This domestic scene is never as blissful as it seems. You saw at supper how Mattie and Ethan feel Zeena's presence in the house. She haunts this scene, too. Symbolized by the cat, Zeena has a firm hold on Ethan's conscience. Her grip will tighten as the book goes on.

Uneasy in Zeena's place, Mattie moves back by the lamp. The cat, like a stand-in for its mistress, jumps into the vacant chair and through narrowed eyes watches Mattie and Ethan converse.

They talk naturally and simply of everyday things: the weather, Starkfield gossip, the next church social. Eavesdropping on them, you'd think this is just another evening in a long string of evenings they have shared. Ethan knows they're pretending to be married, and he'd like to continue the illusion as long as he can.

At length he says to Mattie, "This is the night we were to have gone coasting." His tone suggests that they'll go another time. "We might go tomorrow if there's a moon." Seeing Mattie's enthusiasm, he becomes bolder. He describes the perils of coasting down the Corbury road, especially at the corner down by the big elm. "If a fellow didn't keep his eyes open he'd go plumb into it," he says. Neither Mattie or Ethan wants to be frightened half to death on Corbury road, so they agree that maybe they're better off staying home.

NOTE: You heard them talk of the menacing elm tree earlier in the story. Why should this big tree demand so much attention? Later you can count on the presence of the elm tree to touch the lives of the principal characters.

Mention of the Corbury road emboldens Ethan to reveal what he'd been thinking about all evening. He says to Mattie that under the Varnum spruces "I saw a friend of yours getting kissed." Ethan hopes that talking about Ruth and Ned's kiss might somehow lead to some small intimacy between him and Mattie. But as soon as he has spoken the words, he wishes that he hadn't, for they were too vulgar and out of place. And they make Mattie blush to the roots of her hair.

NOTE: Why might Mattie turn crimson so quickly? In the era when the story takes place, etiquette forbade talk in mixed company of virtually every bodily part and function. To talk of kissing or more intimate matters in the presence of unmarried girls was especially improper. Like any social practice, the custom was probably ignored as often as it was honored. But Mattie is either too scared or too naive to break the rules.

Mattie's embarrassment forces Ethan to keep his distance. He alludes to Ruth and Ned's impending marriage, a thinly disguised effort to talk to Mattie about her future. Does she want to marry? He could ask her directly, but he won't dare. "It'll be your turn next," he suggests. Slightly annoyed and a bit nervously, Mattie wonders whether Ethan has raised the topic again because Zeena has something against her. "Last night she seemed to have," she explains. Again, Zeena intrudes.

To talk openly of Zeena's attitude toward Mattie has suddenly moved Ethan and Mattie's relationship to a new stage. They've never spoken as candidly to each other as they do now. Feeling like conspirators who have gone too far, they agree to stop talking about Zeena. They understand each other with perfect clarity, it seems, a rare moment of two minds in perfect harmony. Ethan slides his hand cautiously toward Mattie, and his fingertips touch the end of the fabric she is sewing. The tension between them is electric.

All of a sudden, a sound! The cat jumps after a mouse, sending Zeena's empty rocker into a ghostly movement. Ethan is struck with a painful thought that Zeena herself will be rocking there at this time tomorrow, and he'll never have another dreamlike evening such as this. His body and brain ache with his sudden return to reality. A terrible weariness takes hold of him. He doesn't know what to do or say. Unaware of what he's doing, he stoops his head and kisses the bit of cloth in his hand. Mattie has already begun to roll up her work, and the cloth glides slowly from his lips.

So ends Mattie and Ethan's evening together. They arrange the room for the night, say good night, and go upstairs separately. When Mattie closes her bedroom door Ethan remembers "that he had not even touched her hand."

CHAPTER VI

Consider the high hopes Ethan had for his evening with Mattie. Wouldn't you expect him to be sullen with disappointment the next morning? But at breakfast he's irrationally happy. Why? Nothing in his life has changed. He had not even touched Mattie's fingertip. His cheerfulness mystifies even him.

He reasons that last night he had tasted life with Mattie, and he'd done nothing to spoil it. He feels good about that.

NOTE: Ethan feels proud to have resisted temptation. He could have thrown himself at Mattie. Had she resisted- which is very likely- the evening would have been spoiled. Moreover, she might have told Zeena about his advances, or she might have packed her bags and run away. In short, Ethan felt he had nothing to gain from giving in to his impulses. Therefore, he kept a cool head. Bravo, Ethan!

Later, setting off to work, he's tempted to tell Mattie, "We shall never be alone again like this." Again he resists, aware that a deeper involvement with Mattie can go nowhere. Instead he says matter-of-factly, "I guess I can make out to be home for dinner." (By "dinner" Ethan means the midday meal.)

He has a tight schedule for the day's chores: He must haul lumber to the village, buy glue, and repair the pickle-dish before Zeena returns. If all goes well he'll complete his tasks and still have time left to spend alone with Mattie. But all does not go well. A sleet storm has coated the roads with ice. The logs are slippery and take twice as long to load onto the sledge. One of his horses slips and falls, injuring a knee which Ethan must wash and bind.

Because of the delays Ethan postpones his trip to Starkfield until after dinner. He must hurry to be back before Zeena arrives. In the village he works frantically to unload the logs, then hastens to Michael Eady's shop for the glue. Ethan finds Denis Eady lounging with friends around the stove. Denis, clerking for the day, doesn't know where the glue is kept. Impatiently Ethan waits for Denis to search the shop. To Ethan, who's in a dreadful hurry, Denis seems to dawdle deliberately. The search is in vain.

NOTE: Have you noticed that each time Denis Eady shows up, Ethan feels as though he's been slapped in the face? Denis is probably a fine fellow, but to Ethan he is a threat, for Denis is a legitimate suitor for Mattie's hand. Furthermore, Denis' heartiness and cheerful personality make Ethan squirm. He can't return Denis' warm greeting or a slap on the back.

Ethan rushes to Mrs. Homan's shop, where the widow Homan hunts down her last bottle of glue, asking Ethan questions about his need for it and talking all the while. Glue in hand, Ethan dashes out and quickly mounts his sled. The widow calls after him, "I hope Zeena ain't broken anything she sets store [values] by." Mrs. Homan's words are lost on Ethan, but not on you. You might almost guess that Ethan's purchase won't remain a private matter very long, and that somehow Zeena is bound to find out.

Ethan drives home as quickly as he can, again thinking of what Mattie might be doing. There's no sign of Jotham, who's been sent to pick up Zeena at the train. As Ethan enters the house, he shows Mattie the glue and heads straight for the pickle-dish in the china closet. She grabs him by the sleeve and whispers, "Zeena's come." They stand and stare at each other like culprits caught in the act. Has their plan been foiled? Not if Ethan can help it. He assures Mattie that he'll come down to mend the dish that night.

"How is she?" Ethan wants to know. He's curious about Zeena because after her trips away from home, she usually comes back "nervous." That is, she's even more snappish than usual. Mattie can't tell because Zeena said nothing when she came in. She hurried straight to her room.

In the meantime Jotham returns. Ethan invites him to supper, thinking Jotham will serve to keep things calm at the table. He turns down the invitation. Since Jotham won't walk away from a free meal very often, Ethan senses that there's a message in his refusal. Is it that Zeena didn't see the doctor? Did she dislike his advice? Or is it some other news? Ethan feels apprehensive about the approaching meal, even though Mattie has prepared the room and table as attractively as on the previous night.

CHAPTER VII

Ethan goes cautiously to greet his wife.

Zeena sits in the darkened bedroom, bolt upright, still wearing her traveling clothes. Something is wrong. Ethan's effort to be friendly falls flat.

"I'm a great deal sicker than you think," she announces, an edge of pride in her voice. The words sound ominous, but not to Ethan, for Zeena has cried "wolf" too often. She and her husband have held this conversation before. This time, however, Ethan thinks: what if at last Zeena's words are true?

You know immediately what Ethan is thinking. He may long for Zeena's death, but he says kindly, "I hope that's not so, Zeena."

"I've got complications," says Zeena, which means that she is not just sick, but seriously sick. In fact, she just might die. Ethan is suddenly tossed between waves of jubilation and pity for Zeena. She wants his sympathy, but she looks so hard and lonely sitting in the darkness that the best Ethan can do is question the reliability of her new doctor.

"Everybody in Bettsbridge knows about Dr. Buck," says Zeena. She cites the case of Eliza Spears, a woman Dr. Buck brought back from near death.

NOTE: You're not told what's wrong with Zeena, but she and her doctor think it's grave enough to require surgery. Medical practices in Ethan's day were still fairly primitive, and operations were often performed only as a last resort. Besides, people shunned operations, regarding them as "indelicate." Zeena, of course, disdains operations. After all, what violates your privacy more than a surgeon's knife? Ethan can be grateful, for he saves a great deal of money in surgeons' fees.

More or less convinced- or perhaps only resigned to Zeena's trust in Dr. Buck- Ethan asks what treatment the doctor prescribes. Notice that he is more curious about the treatment, which will cost him money, than about the diagnosis.

"He wants I should have a hired girl," says Zeena, and "I oughtn't to have to do a single thing around the house."

What news could hit Ethan harder? Any treatment would be cheaper than hiring a full-time, live-in housegirl. Still worse is that the matter has already been settled. Zeena's Aunt Martha has found a girl who will arrive in Starkfield by train late tomorrow afternoon.

Anger and dismay seize Ethan. He doubts that Zeena is as ill as she claims, and is convinced that she had gone to Bettsbridge as part of a scheme to force a servant on him.

Enraged, he asks, "Did Dr. Buck tell you how I was to pay her wages?" Just as furiously, Zeena shouts back, "No, he didn't. For I'd 'a' been ashamed to tell him that you grudged me the money to get back my health, when I lost it nursing your own mother!"

The two fling biting criticism and charges at each other "like serpents shooting venom." This is the first time open anger has raged between them in seven years of marriage. When their wrath is spent, Ethan feels ashamed over stooping to such senseless savagery. Moreover, lashing out at Zeena won't solve the practical problem of having a new girl on his hands the next day. "I haven't got the money... You'll have to send her back," he tells Zeena. He even vows to do everything around the house himself. Zeena scoffs at that and asks about the fifty dollars Ethan collected from Andrew Hale for the lumber.

Yesterday Ethan was right. He should not have lied about Hale's cash payment, and again regrets words he has spoken impulsively. He stammers that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. He doesn't have the money, and won't get it for at least three months.

How will they work out their differences? Ethan pledges to work that much harder to please her and Mattie. Zeena's solution stuns him: she plans to send Mattie away.

At the look on Ethan's face Zeena laughs out loud. (He can't remember ever hearing her laugh before.) Ethan has misunderstood. She never intended to keep two girls in the house. No wonder he worried over the expense.

Zeena's laugh is so wicked, you can't avoid the sensation that it signals her triumph over Ethan. She has successfully dealt him a blow below the belt.

Ethan can't believe it. "Mattie Silver's not a hired girl. She's your relation," he says. But Zeena regards Mattie as a pauper who's outstayed her welcome, and "it's somebody else's turn now."

No sooner has Zeena finished condemning Mattie when the young girl's cheerful voice calls them to supper. When Zeena refuses to go down, Mattie gaily offers to bring food up.

NOTE: You can't ignore the contrast between Zeena's coldheartedness and Mattie's innocent goodwill in this and several following scenes. Your sympathies lie with Mattie, of course. Yet bear in mind that Zeena is the wronged partner in the marriage. After all, it's not she who becomes involved, however innocently, in an extramarital relationship.

Ethan sweeps to Mattie's defense. "You ain't going to do it, Zeena?" But Zeena holds firm. Then follows one of the longest speeches Ethan makes in the book. Although it's only four sentences, it's spoken with great passion and intensity. It's clear to Zeena that Ethan is frantic to hold on to Mattie. "If you do a thing like that what do you suppose folks'll say of you?" he asks her. She shoots back a cutting reply: "I know well enough what they say of my having kep' her here as long as I have." -

NOTE: Zeena's answer implies that village people have been talking about Ethan and Mattie, although you won't find evidence of such gossip in the book. Also, where could Zeena have heard such talk? She rarely sees anyone from Starkfield. Then what does she mean? Was her comment just a lucky stab in the dark? Don't you wish that Ethan would call her bluff and say, "Now what is that supposed to mean?" But Ethan is scared, and couldn't bear to have his relationship with Mattie exposed.

Ethan scowls at Zeena. This evil, brooding woman has robbed him of a happy life. Now she intends to deprive him of the one thing that could make up for every hardship he has suffered. Violence wells up inside him. He takes a wild step toward her and clenches his fist. But suddenly the flame of hatred goes out, and like a lamb he goes downstairs to tell Mattie the news.

Mattie serves Ethan his dinner, but he can't eat. He rises from his chair and walks around the table to her side. She looks at him, frightened. In terror she melts against him. "What is it- what is it?" she stammers. In answer, he presses his lips against hers. For an instant she's swept away by the intensity of his passion. Then she backs off.

Ethan says, "You can't go, Matt! I'll never let you go!"

"Go- go?" she stammers. "Must I go?"

Ethan breaks the news to Mattie, who droops before him "like a broken branch."

NOTE: You might wonder why Ethan doesn't put his foot down and declare himself boss. A coup d'etat would spare himself and Mattie a good deal of heartache. Does he have the strength to defy Zeena? He's yet to stand up to her. Is he likely to start now? In addition, because Zeena is kin to Mattie and Ethan isn't, Zeena technically has the right to determine Mattie's fate.

Ethan knows that when Zeena makes up her mind, that's it! Mattie must go. But where? She has no home, no family, no prospects for work. She's hopeless in the truest sense of the word. Ethan despairs to think of her facing the world alone. He's reminded of tales of unfortunate girls seeking work in big cities and, in the process, losing their decency.

Ethan springs up suddenly. "You can't go, Matt! I won't let you! She always had her way, but I mean to have mine now-" He stops in mid-sentence, hearing Zeena's footsteps behind him- and says not another word. So much for Ethan's rebellion.

Zeena takes her place at the table. Grim-faced as always, but unusually chipper, she heaps food on her plate, adjusts her dentures, and digs in. Her conquest of Ethan must have improved her appetite. She has a scrap of meat and an affectionate word for the cat. (A reward for being a faithful stand-in, perhaps?) Matter-of-factly she answers Mattie's questions about her visit to Bettsbridge. She cheers up- and even smiles a little- when describing the "intestinal disturbances among her friends and relatives." She addresses her cousin as "Matt," something she rarely did. What she says to "Matt," however, is that the pie she served for dinner "sets a mite heavy" in her stomach. In other words, it gives her indigestion.

Zeena has some rarely used heartburn medicine stored somewhere, and presently leaves the table to fetch it. In a few moments, she returns, "her lips twitching with anger, a flush of excitement on her sallow face." In her hands she carries the pieces of the red glass pickle-dish.

"I'd like to know who done this," she says, visibly upset. In fact, she's more distraught than angry. Tears hang on her eyelids. Her voice quavers as she explains how she put her precious pickle-dish on the top shelf of the closet to keep it safe.

NOTE: Zeena is obviously shaken by the discovery of her broken pickle-dish. But what causes such distress? Doesn't she seem to overreact? The dish has sentimental value because it came from her Aunt Philura in Philadelphia. But does Zeena seem like the sentimental type? Perhaps she is terribly hurt by Ethan and Mattie's deception. All we know for sure is that Zeena's response to the breaking of her treasure is way out of proportion to its monetary worth. For a moment she seems like a poor pathetic soul, perhaps deserving a little pity.

Ethan responds, "The cat done it," which is true to a point. But Zeena scoffs. Mattie then speaks out and accepts the blame.

"You got down my pickle-dish- what for?" Zeena wants to know. When Mattie explains, Zeena thunders, "You wanted to make the supper-table pretty, and you waited till my back was turned.... You're a bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always known it."

If Zeena had any doubts or pangs of conscience about letting Mattie go, she's free of them now. She feels perfectly justified in casting Mattie out to her fate.

To cap her outburst Zeena leaves the room carrying the pickle-dish as if it were a dead body. She thinks aloud that this tragedy would not have occurred if she had listened to folks and sent Mattie away long ago.

CHAPTER VIII

That night, after Zeena falls asleep, Ethan comes downstairs to a small room which he sometimes uses as a study. He has some thinking to do.

As he lies down on the sofa-bed, a hard object jabs his cheek. It's a needlework cushion, the only one Zeena ever made. Cushions are usually soft, but not this one. Remember, it's Zeena's. Ethan flings it across the room, and props his head against the wall instead.

What to do about Mattie weighs on his mind. Earlier in the evening she had left a note on the kitchen table. "Don't trouble, Ethan," it read- the first words she had ever written to him. How dismaying that in the future he would reach Mattie only with dead words on cold paper.

But Ethan does want to "trouble" about Mattie. He can't let his hopes die. He's only twenty-eight. Why should he give his life to Zeena? She's a hundred times meaner and more discontented now than when he married her.

Ethan thinks about a man much like himself who had lived over the mountain. The man escaped from his miserable wife by going West with the girl he loved. There followed a divorce, a remarriage, even a baby girl. The abandoned wife had sold the farm and opened a thriving lunchroom in Bettsbridge.

The story fires Ethan's thoughts. He'll do the same- leave with Mattie, take her West, and try his luck. He begins to compose a good-bye letter to Zeena, which she'll find on the bed after he's gone. "Zeena, I've done all I could for you," he writes. "...Maybe both of us will do better separate... you can sell the farm and mill, and keep the money-"

NOTE: You probably know Ethan well enough to speculate on why he decides to write a letter to Zeena instead of telling her and walking out. Would she call him ludicrous and laugh in his face? Is he a coward? Is this another of Ethan's self-delusions? Or is he simply avoiding another vicious argument?

The word money gives him pause. What money will he use to carry out his plan? The farm and mill are mortgaged to the limit. No one would lend him a dime. In the West he'd surely find work, but it costs money to go West. Alone he would take a chance, but with Mattie in tow...?

And Zeena? Ethan frets about her, even as he plans to run from her. She'd be lucky to earn a thousand dollars by selling the farm- if she could even find a buyer. When Ethan worked day and night, the farm provided only a meager living. Well, he thinks, she can leave the farm and try her luck with her family. See what they can do for her. Give her a taste of the bitter medicine she was trying to force on Mattie.

Ethan's eye falls on an advertisement in an old newspaper in the room. The ad announces "Trips to the West: Reduced Rates." Eagerly he reads the list of fares, and in a moment realizes the truth. There's no need worrying about how to live in the West because he doesn't have the fare for the trip. There is no way out- none. He is a prisoner for life, and he knows it. Lying back on the sofa-bed he weeps and gradually falls asleep.

Waking at dawn, he feels chilly and stiff. He's jolted by the thought that Mattie leaves today. What he'll do without her, he can't imagine. Suddenly Mattie enters the small study and tells Ethan that she had lain awake all night listening for him to come upstairs.

Although this is her last morning, she starts the day like any other, doing her chores. With the daily routine begun, Ethan thinks he may have exaggerated Zeena's threats last night. He's hopeful that in the light of a new day, she may come to her senses. But he must wait until Zeena awakens to know if his hunch is right.

Outside, Ethan sees Jotham Powell arriving for work as usual. All is so ordinary, Ethan can't believe that this will be an exceptionally sad day in his life. Jotham, however, reports that Dan'l Byrne will be taking Mattie's trunk to the train at about noon. According to instructions from Zeena, Jotham plans to take Mattie to the station afterwards- in time to catch the six o'clock train to Stamford.

"Oh, it ain't so sure about Mattie's going-" suggests Ethan. But Jotham- and maybe Ethan himself- knows that Zeena clings to her decisions. When the two men go inside for breakfast, they find Zeena unusually alert and active, the way you'd expect a child to be on a special day. She announces the day's schedule, laying to rest any doubt that Mattie will leave today.

Now it's the eleventh hour for Ethan. He's got to do something, but what? One thing he's sure about, he's not going to sit around the house and look on helplessly as Mattie is banished.

He starts to town, being reminded as he walks of happy moments he shared with Mattie at this tree or that bend in the road. Suddenly it occurs to him that he still has one chance to raise funds for his trip West. Andrew Hale might pay his debt if he knew that Zeena's poor health required Ethan to hire a new servant. Pride wouldn't keep Ethan from asking Hale for payment this time. Just this once, Ethan thinks, he might resort to lying. His best tactic, he knew, would be to enlist the help of Mrs. Hale, a kindly person, who could be persuaded to help Ethan plead his case to her husband.

NOTE: This is the first time you see Ethan plotting something openly dishonest. Would you call him a dishonest man, however? Do you think that his affair of the heart is dishonest? You may find it worthwhile to ponder the state of Ethan's morality.

Near town he catches sight of Hale's sled, with Hale's youngest son in the driver's seat, his mother beside him. What good luck! Just the person Ethan wants to talk to.

Mrs. Hale greets Ethan cordially. Immediately you see why she's considered a kind person. Her face has "pink wrinkles twinkling with benevolence." No one else in the book resembles her even faintly.

Mrs. Hale has already heard about Zeena's trip to Bettsbridge to see the doctor. She wishes Zeena well, and adds, "I always tell Mr. Hale I don't know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a' had you to look after her; and I used to say the same thing 'bout your mother. You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome."

At that Mrs. Hale nods sympathetically and drives away. Ethan is left standing in the middle of the road, struck dumb with shame and astonishment. Never in his twenty-eight years has anyone spoken so kindly to him. No one has understood his plight so well. Until this moment, no one has admired him like Mrs. Hale.

Ethan is not only surprised, he's overcome with guilt. To think he was going to take advantage of the Hales' sympathy to obtain money! To think he was going to lie to the only people around who pitied him! A scoundrel might deceive his friends, but not Ethan.

Slowly Ethan returns to the farm. He has suddenly recognized who and what he is: a poor man with a sick wife, "whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute."

CHAPTER IX

Can you doubt that Mattie will leave before the day is out? Can you doubt that something drastic will happen in this, the climactic chapter of the book?

Ethan acknowledges that Zeena has won a victory. In defeat, he enters the kitchen to find his wife reading a book called "Kidney Troubles and Their Cure," an undeniable clue to her condition.

NOTE: Zeena shows signs of suffering from a kidney problem, most likely a kidney stone. It would certainly be appropriate for her to have a hard, gritty rock growing inside her. On the other hand, doesn't she deserve sympathy, too, because the pain caused by a kidney stone is reputed to be excruciating? It can turn the gentlest soul into a tiger.

He goes upstairs to help Mattie with her trunk. There is no answer when he calls outside the bedroom. Opening the door he finds out why. She sits on her trunk, sobbing.

"Oh, don't- oh, Matt!" he says to comfort her. Startled to see him there, she clings to him. He puts his lips to her fragrant hair. At that moment Zeena calls from downstairs to hurry up and bring the trunk, for Dan'l Byrne won't wait much longer.

Ethan hoists the trunk onto his shoulders and carries it down the stairs. Zeena, absorbed by her book, doesn't even look up as he goes by. Mattie helps him lift the bulky trunk onto the sleigh, which drives off in haste.

Each minute pushes Mattie and Ethan another step closer to the moment that neither can face. To put off the time when he must say good-bye to Mattie, Ethan decides that he- not Jotham Powell- will drive her to the Flats to catch her train. After the noon meal Ethan declares his intention to Zeena.

"I want you should stay here this afternoon, Ethan," his wife says. "Jotham can drive Mattie over." Zeena has plans for Ethan to repair the stove for the new girl. Ethan is determined to do as he wants, however. "If it was good enough for Mattie," he says, "I guess it's good enough for a hired girl." His temper surging, Ethan storms out of the house. He'd rather face Zeena's anger later than give up his last precious hour or two with Mattie. While hitching the horse to the sleigh he recalls that the day he first met Mattie, just over a year ago, was soft and mild, just like this one.

When he re-enters the house the kitchen is deserted. He finds Mattie, dressed to go, looking around his small study where he had slept last night. Is this the last time he'll see her standing here? Ethan refuses to believe it, still clinging to a hope that this is all a mistake. He shudders at the thought of returning home alone only a few hours from now.

Zeena won't bid Mattie good-bye. She's gone to her room and left word not to disturb her. So it's final! Zeena has achieved her goal. As far as she's concerned, it's good riddance to Mattie. When she comes downstairs again she will find a new girl in Mattie's place.

Although it's early, Ethan says it's time to go. He plans to take a detour to Shadow Pond on his way to the Flats. He wants Mattie to see the place where they once had picnicked together. During a church outing last summer he had come upon her surrounded by a group of young admirers. When she saw him approach, she broke from the group and gave him a cup of coffee. Then they sat by the pond on a fallen tree. He found a locket she had lost. Each remembers the lovely summer afternoon as a time of supreme happiness.

The pond is frozen now, but still beautiful. Seeing the place again gives Ethan a fleeting illusion that he is a free man, and that he's wooing the girl he intends to marry. For a few moments they spill out their hearts to each other. He'd like to whisper sweet words into her ear, but can't. In spite of loving feelings, he's never learned how to express his love.

NOTE: How fitting that the place where Ethan and Mattie began their fleeting romance be named Shadow Pond. Like a shadow, their love cannot last.

Like all pleasant dreams, this one ends too. The sun sinks behind the hill, turning the landscape gray again. They must resume their journey to the train.

"What do you mean to do?" Ethan asks.

Mattie doesn't know. Work in a shop will damage her health again. Relatives won't take her in, even if she were willing to ask them.

"You know there's nothing I wouldn't do for you if I could," he says.

"I know there isn't," she says. To prove it, she pulls from her dress the good-bye letter that Ethan had begun to write to Zeena last night. Mattie had found it in Ethan's study.

He is at once astounded and overjoyed that she read the letter. Would she have gone West with him? "Tell me, Matt! Tell me!"

"I used to think of it sometimes, summer nights..." she answers.

Ethan's heart reels with the thought that Mattie has loved him since last summer- since Shadow Pond.

At this point can anything good come from such news? Won't it make their parting all the more painful? Perhaps, but knowing the depth of Mattie's feelings helps Ethan declare his love openly. For once his tongue sings without restraint: "I want to put my hand out and touch you. I want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when you're sick and when you're lonesome." Rather than have her married to someone else, he adds, "I'd a'most rather have you dead...!"

"Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!" she sobs.

What he has said suddenly shames him. "Don't let's talk that way," he whispers.

By the time the sleigh nears the edge of the village, daylight has surrendered to darkness. Ethan and Mattie hear the shouts of children. Some village boys have just finished their coasting for the day. Mattie reminds Ethan that he was to have taken her down the hill last night.

At the crest of the steep hill on the Corbury road, he asks, "How'd you like me to take you down now?" Mattie hesitates. Is there time? Ethan promises her that there's all the time they want. He'll do almost anything, it seems, to postpone the moment of parting.

Under the Varnum spruces they find a sled that probably belongs to Ned Hale. They prepare to coast, Mattie in front and Ethan steering. It's very dark, but Ethan laughs away the danger. "I could go down this coast with my eyes tied," he boasts.

Down they fly. Approaching the perilous elm tree near the bend in the road, Mattie shrinks back against Ethan for safety. "Don't be scared, Matt!" he cries as they make the turn and speed down to the bottom of the slope.

They start the long walk up. Ethan wants to know if Mattie had been afraid of the elm tree. "I told you I was never scared with you," she answers.

At the top of the hill they return the sled. Standing in the shadows of the Varnum spruces Mattie asks, "Is this where Ned and Ruth kissed each other?" She flings her arms around Ethan. Two nights ago he had seethed with envy of Ned and Ruth. Tonight others might envy him and Mattie. Breathlessly, they kiss.

"Good-bye- good-bye," she stammers.

"Oh, Matt," he cries, "I can't let you go."

They cling and sob like children. "What's the good of either of us going anywheres without the other now?" he says.

"Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again!" she cries, her tearful cheek against his face. "...So 't we'll never come up any more." She wants Ethan to steer the sled right into the big elm so they'd "never have to leave each other any more."

Ethan can't believe her proposal. "You're crazy!" he says.

NOTE: You might agree with Ethan that Mattie's urge to destroy herself and take Ethan with her proves that she is "crazy." But that's part of the tragedy. In a classic tragedy the hero ends up dead. Usually the hero yearns for death as a release from the suffering of life. Is Ethan better off dead? Mattie thinks so. She begins to list all the things wrong with life. Ethan listens and is convinced.

Mattie uses flattery to persuade Ethan to take a suicide run with her. No one in the world, she says, has ever been as kind to her. Then she pleads with him, conjuring up an image of life in his house with a new hired girl. He envisions the house and thinks of Zeena, the intolerable woman he would see every night for years and years.

These are powerful arguments, too strong for Ethan to repel. They cling to each other. He finds her mouth again. In the distance the train whistle blows. "Come," Mattie whispers, tugging him toward the sled.

The slope below them is deserted. All of Starkfield is at supper. They mount the sled. Suddenly, he springs up. "I want to sit in front," he says.

Mattie protests. "How can you steer in front?"

"I don't have to. We'll follow the track."

NOTE: Ethan adds that he's going to sit in front because he wants to feel her holding him on the way down the slope. That's a fair reason. But you can't help wondering if that's the only reason. By sitting in front, wouldn't he receive the full force of the impact with the tree? Or does he want to make sure he dies because he can't live without her? Has his self-destructive urge become stronger than hers? Deep inside, does he perhaps want her to survive the suicide attempt?

On the sled Mattie clasps Ethan. He leans back, and their lips meet one last time. The descent starts. It seems to Ethan that they are flying. The big elm looms ahead. "We can fetch it; I know we can fetch it-" he says, determined to hit the tree trunk squarely.

All of a sudden he thinks of Zeena's twisted, ugly face. For an instant he's distracted, and the sled swerves slightly from its deadly course. But he rights it again and drives it into the black mass of the tree....

The story pauses for a moment. Have Mattie and Ethan "fetched" it? Ethan survives, of course. In the prologue of the novel you've already seen him many years after the smash-up.

And Mattie? You discover her fate at the same time as Ethan. Lying dazed on his back, he sees a star through the branches of the elm. Is it Sirius? he wonders. Too tired to think, he closes his heavy lids to sleep. The silence is profound. Is this like the moment of death?

Ethan hears a little animal squeak under the snow. It sounds like a frightened field mouse in pain, pain so intense he feels it in his own body. The sound seems to come from something soft and springy under his outstretched hand. Slowly things come into focus. His hand is resting on Mattie's head; the cries of pain come from her lips.

Faintly she speaks his name.

"Oh, Matt, I thought we'd fetched it," he moans in grief and agony. But both, to their regret, have lived through the smash-up.

What becomes of them afterward you will find out in the epilogue-that is, in the untitled last chapter of the book.

NOTE: Death pacts between lovers who cannot bear to part occur in both life and literature. Greek mythology tell of Baucis and Philemon, whose wish to die at the same moment is granted by the gods. In Dante's Inferno the lovers Paolo and Francesca kill themselves, but death brings them no relief from suffering. They are doomed to spend eternity in the second circle of hell, their punishment for yielding to desires of the flesh. Then too, Romeo and Juliet inflict death upon themselves, although technically not as a result of a prearranged agreement. Regardless of the time or place, stories of lovers' suicides almost never fail to stir the emotions.

EPILOGUE

The epilogue begins precisely where the prologue ended, twenty-four years after Ethan and Mattie crashed into the elm tree.

Ethan and his overnight guest, the narrator of the story, step into the Frome farmhouse. Two women in the kitchen stop talking when they notice the stranger.

Even before he's introduced the narrator is struck by the room's shabby appearance. The meager furnishings are soiled and worn from use.

Now that Ethan has come home one of the women- a tall, bony, gray- haired figure- starts to prepare the evening meal. The other woman remains huddled in an armchair near the stove. She can't get up because her body is limp. She can move her head, but that's all. She has the bright witchlike stare of someone suffering from a disease of the spine.

NOTE: Although the narrator needs to be told who these women are, you don't. You've met them before and know them well: Mattie and Zeena.

However, you're probably not ready for the shocking change that has taken place since you last saw them.

When Ethan comments that the room feels cold, the small woman in the chair explains in a high, thin voice that the stove has just been refilled with wood. She adds that her companion had taken a long nap and had neglected the fire. "I thought I'd be frozen stiff," she complains.

Ignoring the accusation, the tall woman returns to the table with dinner- the cold leftovers of a mince pie. As she sets the battered pie dish down, Ethan introduces her: "This is my wife, Mis' Frome."

"And this," he says, turning toward the shriveled figure in the chair, "is Miss Mattie Silver...."

NOTE: The gap between the "first acts of the tragedy," as Wharton put it, and the moment when you meet Zeena and Mattie a generation later, has provoked a good deal of literary commentary. Henry James called it "peculiar." In response, Wharton said the book had to be organized this way to achieve the dramatic impact she sought. If the book had been longer, she may have structured it differently. But Wharton deliberately turned Ethan's tale into a novelette rather than a full-length novel to create a stark effect in both the story and its telling.

Back in Starkfield the next day, Mrs. Hale and old Mrs. Varnum can hardly believe that their young boarder, the narrator, had spent the night under Ethan Frome's roof. Mrs. Hale tells him, "You're the only stranger has set foot in that house for over twenty years."

The fact that he gained admittance to Ethan's house makes the narrator something of a celebrity to his landlady. Now she can trust him with more information about what happened to Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena after the smash-up. In fact, Mrs. Hale seems almost relieved to spill out the painful memories she's kept bottled inside her these many years. Her loosened tongue brings Ethan's story up to date.

After the collision with the elm tree Ethan was carried to the minister's house to recover. Mattie, much more seriously hurt, was brought up the hill to the Varnum house. Ruth (now Mrs. Hale) was with her when she awoke. Mattie, seeing her good friend at her bedside, broke down and told Ruth everything.

Word of the accident spread around town, of course. But only Ruth knew why Ethan and Mattie had been coasting that night when they should have been on their way to the Flats to meet Mattie's train.

What Zeena thought nobody knows. To this day she's said nothing. Zeena had hurried to Ethan's side after the smash-up. Later, when Mattie was well enough to be moved, Zeena took her back to the farm, too. The crippled girl has lived there ever since.

"It was a miracle," says Mrs. Hale. Before the accident Zeena had been so sick, she couldn't even care for herself. But when the call came "she seemed to be raised right up." For over twenty years now she's had strength enough to care for both Ethan and Mattie.

Not that it's been easy, adds Mrs. Hale. Quite the contrary, in fact. Suffering has turned Mattie sour, and Zeena has always been a crank. Sometimes the two women torment each other. To see Ethan's face when Mattie and Zeena do battle would break your heart, for he's the one who suffers most.

On pleasant summer days Mattie can be moved into the yard, and there's some relief in that. But in winter the three of them are shut up in one small kitchen. New England winters last a long time. Can you understand now why Ethan goes to the Starkfield post office each noontime to pick up mail that almost never comes? No wonder, too, that his shoulders are stooped and his face is grim. Do you recall that Ethan's gaunt figure makes him appear as though he's "dead and in hell?" In a way, he is. As Mrs. Hale intimates, she doesn't see "much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."

A STEP BEYOND

THE STORY


ECC [Ethan Frome Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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