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In this chapter, Mattie shows that she does care about Ethan, but she hurts his feelings when she says she stays at the Fromes because she has nowhere else to go. At the dance, she is lively and outgoing, dancing with feeling. She also shows that she is not easily led. Denis tries to talk her into letting him take her home, but Mattie repeatedly tells him no.
Ethan is evidently in the midst of a complete infatuation. His feelings are exaggerated, high and low, and he sees the world, including his wife, in a different light because of Mattie. When he walks with her, he feels like he is "floating on a summer stream," far away from the coldness that surrounds him, both in the winter and in his personal life. He is troubled by Zeena's wanting to send her away and determines he will hold on to her at any cost. Zeena, however, is still eager to get rid of her; she feels helpless in doing anything to destroy the admiration between her husband and her cousin. She resorts to petty behavior, as seen when she hides the key. Zeena has truly become a failing old woman.
Although she has been previously described, Zeena appears in person for the first time in this chapter. When she opens the locked door for Ethan and Mattie, he feels like he has never before seen her so clearly, and the sight is not a pleasant one. Her physical appearance matches her cold nature, for the is "tall and angular" with a "puckered throat." To Ethan, she is ugliness personified, a total contrast to the lovely Mattie. To the reader, she is the picture of cruelty as she locks the couple out of the house and scolds them about the snow on their shoes. Edith Wharton even says that Zeena felt so mean she could not sleep.
The elm tree discussion is important in this chapter. Throughout the book there will be references to the tree and to the promised sled-ride, both of which foreshadow the future sledding disaster. It is important to notice that Mattie thinks the tree should be cut down. Ethan promises her it is not necessary and assures her he is a very good sled driver. It is also important to realize that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, two young lovers who are to be married, are a symbol of what Ethan and Mattie can never be.
The graveyard is also an important symbol that is mentioned in this chapter and other places in the novel; it represents those who "did not get away" from Starkfield. It also foreshadows the "deathly existence" that Mattie and Ethan will be forced to lead after the accident. Ethan has always envisioned himself escaping from the town and the farm; now, with Mattie in his life, he no longer feels a need to leave. Neither does he imagine himself buried amongst his old ancestors; instead, he pictures being buried in Starkfield with Mattie by his side. As always, Ethan's reality is clouded by his fantasies.
It is important to understand Ethan's emotions. He is constantly fearful--that Zeena knows how he feels about Mattie, that Zeena will send her away, that Mattie cares for Denis. He makes himself miserable with his fears, and they often color and distort his thinking. He also falsely prides himself throughout the novel. In this chapter, he feels wonderfully in control when Mattie chooses not to go with Denis; he truly believes he has done something "ingenious" in hiding from her as she leaves the dance and observing her reactions to Denis.
It is important to notice the lack of dialogue in the chapter. Ethan is truly a man of few words who has difficulty communicating. Even as he is feeling great about his masculinity and ingenuity, he says little to Mattie other than commanding her to "come along." Even though he is awash in romantic feelings towards her, he cannot utter a single word about them.