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In this first chapter, much information is given about the early Ethan Frome. He is young, quiet, withdrawn, and healthy. Although married, he lives a hard and uninteresting life, farming the land and caring for his sickly wife. He attended college, but had to leave before its completion to care for his ailing parents. He has enough learning, however, to know that there is a whole world of wonder to explore; until Mattie came to his house, he has had no one with whom to share the wonder. No indication is given in the chapter as to whether or not Mattie has any affection for Ethan.
It is important to note that the omniscient narrator looks into the thoughts and feelings of Ethan, so that the reader knows him both inside and out. Since he is intelligent, his mind is very active; he reflects on the past, analyzes the present, and dreams about the future. His thoughts, however, are often colored by his fantasies, especially the ones concerning Mattie. Ethan is the only character in the book whose thoughts are revealed. What is learned about the other characters comes from their dialogue, their actions, or Ethan's evaluation of them.
Mattie is introduced for the first time in this chapter; but she does not appear in person, only through the observations of others. She has grown up in a larger town, called Stamford, and is working at the Frome farm for free in order to help out with Zeena. Ethan is very attracted to this young girl, whom he sees as the bright spot in his life. He also judges her to be bright, for she can talk to him of science and the wonders of nature.
She is also a lively girl, eager to break the monotony of the farm and seek entertainment. She is obviously enjoying herself at the dance. She is probably quite attractive, for the males are attracted to her. Denis is seen dancing with her; he is having so much fun that he calls the musicians back for an encore and dances with Mattie one more time. The thought of losing Mattie to Denis or anyone or anything else is almost more than Ethan can tolerate.
The bare elements of the conflict are presented in this first chapter. Because of poverty, the ailing Zeena has asked her cousin Mattie to live with Ethan and her for room and board; she knows that the family cannot afford to pay someone to look after her. After Mattie has lived with them for a short while, Ethan has fallen in love with her. The sickly Zeena is well enough to realize that her husband is attracted to Mattie and is trying to use her sickness, as hypochondriacs do, to manipulate the situation. Out of jealousy and spite, Zeena wants to send Mattie away permanently. Ethan cannot stand the thought of life without Mattie; she is the one bright spot in his gloomy existence.
Throughout the chapter, Edith Wharton uses short, choppy bits of dialogue to show the uncomfortable feelings between characters. For instance, in the short conversation between Ethan and Zeena about Mattie, their discomfort is apparent; what is not said in the conversation is as important as what is said aloud.