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One moonless winter night, when Starkfield is under two feet of snow, Ethan Frome walks along the deserted main street and towards the church. Light from the church basement windows throws long shadows across the snow, down to Corbury Road. Under an adjoining shed are sleighs and blanketed horses. Ethan thinks of the night in terms of principles of physics; though he left school years earlier, the images of that experience still appear to him on occasion. His life now bears little relation to the life of learning, and though he didn't stay at college long enough to make practical use of his studies, he still has an appreciation for the life of the mind.
Ethan stops to look at the deserted hill where townspeople often bring their sleds to coast. In the quiet, he turns alongside the church and sneaks up to a window to look into the basement room, which is full of the heat of dancers. A row of older women sit along the wall, watching the young folk dance. The music has stopped, and the people are gathering to leave. The food-table has been ravaged, and the musicians have put up their instruments. Then a young man steps up and claps his hands, and everyone flows back into the room for one more dance. The young man finds his partner, a girl with a cherry-colored scarf in her hair, and they begin a lively Virginia Reel.
Ethan's heart beats fast as he watches. He has been looking for the girl with the cherry scarf, and he is jealous of the young man dancing with her. He watches her dance, faster and faster, and feels the dance will never end. He looks from the girl's face to the face of her partner, Denis Eady. He is the son of an ambitious Irish grocer, and Ethan sees him as possessive, smart, and deserving of a whipping. Ethan does not understand why the girl is not offended by Denis's attentions.
Ethan often walks into town to meet his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, and bring her home after an evening's amusement. Ethan's wife Zeena has suggested that the girl, who is living with them, be encouraged to enjoy herself. Zeena knows that Mattie has little happiness; she has left her very different lifestyle in the town of Stamford to come and work on the Frome farm and care for sickly Zeena without pay. When Zeena Frome suggested the outings, Ethan did not like the idea, but he soon came to look forward to the walks home with Mattie. He also suspects that his wife's desires for Mattie's social life are driven by ulterior motives.
Mattie has lived with the Fromes for a year, and Ethan has come to enjoy her company very much. Small and lively, she is not a "fretter," and the girl brings a brightness to the Frome household. She looks and listens when Ethan talks to her, and he feels that she is another sensitive being, able to connect with his emotions about the beauty of the world; she trembles to the "same touch of wonder." They enjoy talking of stars and geology, and Ethan feels other "less definable" sensations, which bring them together in enjoyment. He feels that Mattie speaks to his soul.
Watching the dance, Ethan feels a sense of loss. He sees himself as uninteresting, not so merry as the life he observes through the window. He notes that Mattie's looks and gestures, which he thought were reserved for him, are out there for everyone to see. Sharing her makes him unhappy and fearful. He then recalls that his wife has lately been displeased with Mattie, with her inefficiency. Zeena, who has always been "sickly," feels she needs better help than what the city-bred Mattie provides. In truth, Mattie, who is quick to learn, can be dreamy and forgetful. Ethan thinks that if she were to marry a man she loves, her dormant household instincts would flourish. As it is, he has laughed with her about her foibles and helped her with her chores. Zeena once caught him churning the butter for Mattie and silently turned away.
Lately, Zeena has been even more vocal in her disapproval of Mattie. One cold winter morning, she whines that Mattie is likely to marry Denis Eady, and she herself will not stand in the way of Mattie making such a good match. Ethan shaves, listens, and does not answer. Zeena then complains to Ethan that the doctor has said she needs help and that Ethan must hire a girl when Mattie goes away. Ethan notes his wife's grayish face and wonders aloud why Mattie should go. Zeena again says she needs hired help who will be more proficient than Mattie; the doctor has told her about a girl who might be available.
Ethan dismisses the idea of Denis Eady and of hiring anyone. He hurries to dress, ignoring Zeena's request to talk more about it. He leaves abruptly, claiming he is late. Zeena guesses aloud that he is always late now, since he has started shaving every morning.
Zeena's observation frightens Ethan. He has thought his wife has not noticed him shaving. He is disquieted by his wife's subtle observations and her casual phrases that show she has been watching and drawing conclusions. Lately, Ethan has not paid too much attention to his wife. Zeena has faded into the background for him, since he now lives in the light of Mattie Silver. He cannot conceive of life without her, though in his sudden worry he remembers watching Mattie and Denis dance.