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One thing that sets Ethan Frome apart from other novels is the manner in which the story is told. Edith Wharton doesn't just start at the beginning and tell you what happens. Rather, she introduces you to a narrator who knows no more about Ethan Frome than you do.
NOTE: The narrator, who remains nameless, identifies himself as a young engineer. He tells you how he uncovered Ethan's story bit by bit. He recounts what people said to him and what he observed during the months he spent in Ethan's hometown one winter long ago.
This opening chapter is a prologue to the main story. It introduces the narrator, describes the town and surrounding countryside, gives you a glimpse at some townspeople, and starts to build some of the novel's major themes. But most of all, it stirs your curiosity about Ethan Frome.
The narrator pulls you into the book as he might draw a stranger into a conversation over coffee. He addresses you directly: "If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post office." The post office is where he first laid eyes on Ethan. Every day at noon Ethan parked his buggy at the curb and picked up mail at the post office window. But oddly, he rarely got anything except the local newspaper and an occasional package of patent medicine addressed to his wife, Zeena Frome.
Ethan seldom talked to anybody. When someone addressed him, he answered quietly with as few words as possible before mounting his buggy and driving slowly back to his farm. What his daily visit to town meant to him was anybody's guess.
NOTE: It's no accident that Ethan's solitude impresses the narrator. Ethan appears to be a cheerless, broken man, not the sort of fellow you'd slap on the back and invite for a beer. There are many reasons why people withdraw into themselves. Sometimes it's their nature. For others, life has been too hard. Some people stay out of others' ways so they won't get hurt. Which of these applies to Ethan, the narrator intends to find out.
Ethan catches the narrator's eye because his looks are striking. Tall and powerful, Ethan must have been a gallant figure at one time. But now he hobbles when he walks, his shoulders sag, and he has a prominent red gash, the scar of an old wound, across his forehead. To the narrator, Ethan looks as though he "was dead and in hell." Yet he is only fifty-two years old.
Harmon Gow, Starkfield's former stage driver, explains the contrast between Ethan's run-down appearance and his age: It was the "smash-up," he says, an event that occurred twenty-four years ago. (A quick subtraction shows that Ethan was twenty-eight at the time.) It was a terrible smashup, Gow recalls, and it should have killed him. But, he adds, the Fromes are tough, and Ethan will probably live to one hundred. Considering his battered looks, the narrator finds that hard to believe.
Gow also suggests that Ethan has turned into a stiff and grizzled old man because "he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away." Gow's remark puzzles the narrator at first, but as time passes he begins to understand what Gow meant.
The narrator, it turns out, has spent a whole winter in Starkfield. An engineer for a power company, he had been sent to do a job in nearby Corbury Junction. A strike delayed the work, so he had plenty of time to get to know the area. Winter, he tells us, "shut down on Starkfield." He paints a grim picture of an almost lifeless town held in winter's deathlike grip. For close to six months the town sags under the weight of snow, its pulse sluggish, like an animal in hibernation. Living in such a place can crush a man's spirit. Clearly, Harmon Gow knew what he was talking about when he commented that "most of the smart ones get away."
NOTE: Have you noticed how appropriately Starkfield is named? It's harsh, desolate, and barren- a tough place to spend a winter. Notice how often Starkfield's landscapes are described as "lonely," "silent," or "gloomy." People's moods and emotions often swing with changes in the weather. Also, the climate of a place rubs off on people. To some extent that may help to explain not only Ethan's austere personality, but also the somber atmosphere of the town and its surrounding countryside.
You don't know why Ethan couldn't "get away" from Starkfield. The narrator is curious, though, and tries to find out. But people in Starkfield generally don't open up to strangers, so it takes a while for him to unlock the mystery of Ethan's puzzling appearance and behavior.
He tries to construct a few pieces of the puzzle by talking to Ruth Hale, a widow known as Mrs. Ned Hale, who owns the Varnum house, where the narrator stayed during his time in Starkfield. Ruth Hale gossips endlessly about the goings-on in Starkfield, but curiously, she won't talk about Ethan Frome. When pressed to reveal some information, she murmurs, "Yes, I knew them both... it was awful...."
Mrs. Hale's reluctance to say more raises further questions in the narrator's- to say nothing of the reader's- mind: Who are "both?" What was "it?" Why was it "awful?" And especially, why did Mrs. Hale become upset when asked about Ethan?
The narrator's quest for information takes him back to Harmon Gow, whose "uncomprehending grunt" doesn't help much, either. However, Harmon adds that "it"- presumably, the smash-up- took place near the Varnum house and that Ruth was the first person to see the victims after it happened. Now, years later, she still can't bear to talk about it.
A little later, quite by accident, the narrator's life converges with Ethan's. Their encounter gives us a chance to meet Ethan close up, and finally to learn the whole story behind this unusual behavior and appearance.
First you're told how the two men made contact. The narrator works at a powerhouse in a place called the Junction, a ten-mile commute from Starkfield. Each day he takes a buggy or sleigh provided by Denis Eady, the owner of the town's livery stable. He is dropped off in Corbury Flats, three miles away, where he catches a train to the Junction. One day in midwinter, Eady's horses "fell ill of a local epidemic." Harmon Gow advises the narrator that Ethan Frome's horse was still healthy, and for a dollar Ethan might be persuaded to drive over to the Flats each morning and back again in the afternoon.
The narrator expresses wonder that Ethan needs money so badly. "Well, matters ain't gone any too well with him," replies Gow. For the last twenty years, he continues, Ethan's had problems making ends meet on his farm. Although it's always been tough for Ethan, things had gotten even worse. His father got kicked in the head by a horse, went soft in the brain, and gave away most of his money before he died. Then Ethan's mother took sick with a disease that took years to kill her. And now Zeena Frome, Ethan's wife, is sickly, too. "Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping," says Gow.
Every day for a week after that, Ethan carries the narrator back and forth to Corbury Flats. Ethan doesn't say much, answering questions in monosyllables. He hardly even looks at his passenger. To the narrator, Ethan is like a piece of the "mute, melancholy" winter landscape, a piece of "frozen woe."
NOTE: Even if you read casually, you can hardly miss the numerous references to winter in the novel. Winter, traditionally, is the season when life ebbs from the earth. It's no accident, therefore, that in scene after scene you will be reminded of death. Death, especially death in winter, is one of the novel's principal themes. You'll find out why long before you finish the book.
Only twice during many trips to and from work does Ethan emerge from his shell. Once he reveals that long ago he had briefly been in Florida, but the memory of it is now "all snowed under." Another time the narrator misplaces a popular science book on bio-chemistry. Later he sees the book in Ethan's hand. Ethan says bitterly that the book contains things "that I didn't know the first word about." Further, he discloses that he used to be interested in this type of technical book. When the narrator offers the book on loan, he hesitates, then says, "Thank you- I'll take it."
NOTE: Ethan's professed interest in science surprises the narrator. Could it also explain Ethan's willingness to talk to him? Perhaps Ethan needs a soulmate, and the young engineer fills the bill.
Ethan may strike you as very odd and remote. But a sound mind resides behind that solemn mask. Remember that Harmon Gow included Ethan among "the smart ones." Of course, there are different ways to be "smart." Did Harmon mean clever and alert?" He couldn't have meant smart in the sense of fashionable, for Ethan is anything but that.
One day the narrator is given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to unseal Ethan's lips. A heavy overnight snowfall has blocked the train to the Junction. Despite the storm, Ethan shows up as usual in the morning to take the narrator to work. Since the train is stuck, Ethan offers to drive clear over to the Junction. The narrator says, "You're doing me the biggest kind of a favour."
"That's all right," replies Ethan.
On the way the two men pass by Ethan's land. The sawmill looks "exanimate" (that is, it used to be alive and thriving, but is no longer); the sheds sag under their load of snow. In the orchard, apple trees are "starved" and "writhing." The run-down farmhouse makes the landscape "lonelier."
Ethan's house looks shrunken, and in fact, it is. Its "L" is missing. For some sad reason that he doesn't explain, Ethan had to take it down.
NOTE: As the narrator explains, the "L" in a New England farmhouse is a structure usually built at right angles to the main house. It links the living quarters to the barn or woodshed. Because it's connected to the main house, it could symbolize the farmer's link to the soil. Or its importance might be that it enabled the farmer to get to his work more comfortably on icy mornings. Either way, Ethan's house is diminished, and it's described in such detail that you can't miss the narrator's point. The house reflects the diminished life of its occupants.
Can Ethan tell what his passenger thinks about the Fromes' run-down house and sawmill? It seems so, for he launches into a partial account of his family's decline. The road running past the farm was well traveled at one time, but the coming of the railroad put an end to that. Ethan's mother, who suffered terribly from rheumatism, managed to get by as long as the traffic on the road distracted her. When nobody passed by any more, the old lady didn't understand why. "It preyed on her right along till she died," Ethan says.
For the time being, that's all you learn about Ethan's past. Although it's not much, it's a start.
Before the sleigh arrives at the Junction, snow starts to fall again, obscuring the landscape and silencing Ethan. That afternoon on the return trip it begins to snow heavily. In no time the road is buried. The old horse becomes confused and strays from the path two or three times. Daylight fades and the narrator jumps from the sleigh to guide the horse. It's a struggle for both men and beast to keep going. When they are near exhaustion, Ethan spies his farm's gate. They've made it to the Fromes' place, but to go all the way to Starkfield that night is out of the question.
Quite by chance the narrator gains access into Ethan Frome's house, a place no stranger has entered in many, many years. Approaching the door, he hears a woman's voice inside. The quality of the voice tells him that she's complaining about something. But as he enters, the droning voice suddenly grows still.
That night the narrator says, "I found the clue to Ethan Frome." When you turn the page to Chapter I, you'll begin to hear the whole melancholy story.
Suddenly you're swept back at least a generation to the time when Ethan Frome is a young man. You see him walking rapidly through the empty streets of Starkfield. It's a clear night and as usual in the novel, it is wintertime. Places and names you already know from the opening chapter are mentioned again, but this time in a new context.
NOTE: In Ethan Frome Edith Wharton "frames" Ethan's story inside two chapters (the first and last) set closer to the present than the main part of the story. The two chapters serve as a frame through which the reader views the past. You must wait until the very last part of the book to learn what the narrator saw and heard in Ethan's house that snowy night.
Perhaps you'd expect the story to be told in Ethan's words. But Edith Wharton serves up a surprise; she has the narrator tell the story as he envisions it. Like a master storyteller, he relates facts, but also shapes the tale with his imagination. As you read, try to determine which events might have actually occurred and which must be the product of the narrator's inventive mind.
Ethan walks past Michael Eady's new brick store. (He must be related to Denis Eady, whose horses will someday take the narrator to work. You'll find out.) Then there's Lawyer Varnum's house. (He's the father of Ruth Varnum. You know that years from now Ruth will be Ned Hale's widow, and the narrator will be renting a room from her in this very house.)
Just outside the Varnum gates lies the road to Corbury, with its steep slope. The hill is Starkfield's favorite sledding ground. Surely you are meant to take note of it because it is mentioned three times in this opening description of the town. Straddling the Varnum's front walk are two black Norway spruce trees, and just across the street is the church, toward which Ethan is headed.
As he strides ahead, a thought flashes through his head- something about the quality of the atmosphere on this cold, starry night: "It's like being in an exhausted receiver," he thinks. Such a notion in the mind of a scientist would be odd enough, but in Ethan's head it seems downright peculiar. Then you discover something about Ethan's past that explains why he might harbor such an idea.
NOTE: In Ethan Frome Wharton ignores the usual concept of time used in most fiction. She leaves it to the reader to figure out what comes first, second, third, and so forth. In an instant she takes you back years into the past, returns you to the present, then tells about events that may have occurred a week ago. Then just as suddenly she focuses on last winter. For example, the action in this opening chapter of Ethan's story takes only seconds to complete. But in the few moments it takes him to reach the church and peer in the window, we catch glimpses of events that took place last year as well as half a dozen years ago.
Ethan had attended a technological college in Worcester, but because his father was killed he dropped out after a year. Ever since, images of what he had learned come to him unexpectedly. You are told that Ethan has a fanciful mind that seeks deep meanings in ordinary events. It's an apt description. Notice his thoughts as he looks through the church window and observes the dancing inside.
Evidently Ethan doesn't want to be seen outside the church. He avoids the rays of light shining on the snow and hugs the shadows until he finds the window he wants. It seems clear that he's done this before.
NOTE: The contrast between the brilliant light inside the church and the darkness outside is drawn vividly. It couldn't be accidental. Look for the motif of light and darkness throughout the novel. Why does Wharton stress it? Could it be that darkness suggests secrecy? You already know that Ethan is, if nothing else, a secretive sort of fellow. Yet he reveals many of his most personal thoughts while at the church window.
Inside the building it looks like the end of a cheerful, noisy evening of music and dancing. Suddenly a young man rounds up the crowd for the last dance, a lively Virginia reel. In the darkness Ethan's heart is beating fast, as though he himself is one of the dancers. However, his pulse quickens not from the dance but from the anticipation of finding in the throng a particular girl with a cherry-red scarf on her head.
He spies her dancing with Denis Eady. She's obviously enjoying herself. In fact, she's having too good a time to suit Ethan, who studies her closely and tries to interpret her every smile and movement. That she finds pleasure dancing with that no-good Romeo, Denis Eady, bothers Ethan greatly.
Clearly love has seized Ethan's heart, but it's not a joyful love. Rather, it's more of a plague. Why else would he be lurking in the shadows feeling jealous?
A moment later you learn the reason for Ethan's pain: He's already married to someone else. The story of how he got himself into such a dilemma starts to unfold.
The girl is Mattie Silver, a cousin of Ethan's wife, Zeena. For the past twelve months Mattie, who is about twenty-one years old, has been living with the Fromes, earning her keep by doing housework and aiding Zeena, who is in poor health. You will discover later in the story why Mattie came to Starkfield from Stamford, Connecticut, where she grew up. All you know for the moment is that hardship drove her to her cousin's house about a year ago.
The moment Mattie stepped from the train Ethan fell for her. To him she was "like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth." She brought laughter and the exuberance of youth into the house. Most of all, she enabled Ethan to show off his knowledge of natural phenomena. He pointed out the constellations and lectured her on rock formations. Ethan and Mattie drew closer to each other because they both delighted in sunsets, clouds, and the sights they saw together in the fields and woods.
In contrast, throughout their marriage Ethan and Zeena have hardly talked to each other. Zeena spends most of her time alone, tending to her ailments. When she speaks it's usually to complain or scold. She is dissatisfied with Mattie's work around the house and grumbles about the girl's inefficiency.
Actually, Zeena has a point, for Mattie lacks the aptitude for housekeeping. Now and then Ethan neglects his own work in order to help Mattie with hers. One day Zeena discovered Ethan churning butter (Mattie's task) and turned away in silence after giving him "one of her queer looks."
Did that look indicate that Zeena knows his private thoughts about Mattie? Ethan thinks she does. On the other hand, perhaps he's just feeling guilty and imagines hidden barbs in Zeena's actions and words. He recalls one conversation in particular. One dark morning as he dressed and shaved, Zeena informed him that she'd spoken to her doctor, who told her never to be without help in the house. What will she do, she asks Ethan, after Mattie leaves. They can't afford to hire another girl.
"Why on earth should Mattie go?" asks Ethan.
"Well, when she gets married, I mean."
Ethan, noticeably flustered by Zeena's talk about Mattie's departure, can't continue to discuss it. "I haven't got the time now; I'm late as it is," he says.
She replies sharply, "I guess you're always late, now that you shave every morning."
That comment frightens Ethan more than any other because it is a fact that he started shaving daily only since Mattie moved into the house. He thought mistakenly that Zeena didn't notice such things about him.
Does Zeena know his private thoughts? He suspects that she does. But if he thought it over rationally, he'd probably realize that he needn't fret over his suspicion, for Zeena is caught up in her own woes and lacks the vision to see beyond them. But because Ethan doesn't judge others very astutely, he can't help worrying about what Zeena knows. Nevertheless, his worries won't drive Mattie from his mind. He broods about her virtually all the time.
And that's exactly what he's doing as he stands outside the church window on this chilly winter evening. He has come to escort Mattie home, and he's excited by the prospect. The two-mile walks that he and Mattie have been taking from the village to the farm have become precious to him. Those night walks have brought him and Mattie together. With her arm in his, they have gazed at the stars and reveled in the beauty of nature.
The passion he has for Mattie, however, is tarnished by feelings of uncertainty. Although she acts as though she's fond of Ethan, she appears to act the same way with Denis Eady as they dance together on the other side of the window. Every time she smiles at Denis, Ethan grows less sure of himself. He berates himself and wonders how his dull talk could ever interest her.
NOTE: In just a few seconds Ethan's state of mind has fluctuated from extreme happiness to terrible despair, then back again. His mood swings occur throughout the book, often very rapidly. The dark and light images you saw earlier in this chapter reflect the state of Ethan's emotions. Because he has dark thoughts much of the time, dark images, black shadows, grays, and other muted colors dominate the book. You'll see them time and again.
The dance is about to end. Ethan stands there confused and unhappy. Self-doubt, Zeena's threats, and Mattie's ambiguous hints of affection cloud his brain as the chapter closes.
NOTE: Wharton's personal diary reveals that she wrote Ethan Frome during a time when she was in love with an American newspaperman stationed in Paris. The affair troubled her greatly, not in a moral sense, but rather because the man's interest in her was sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual, but never both. In short, he kept her off balance. Knowing this, you can hardly overlook the parallels between her experience and Ethan's.
Poor Ethan! Without a shred of self-confidence he stays hidden in the shadows as the dancers pour out of the hall. Instead of coming forward, offering Mattie his arm and heading toward home, he waits behind the door to see what Mattie will do. Ethan hasn't felt this shy in a long time. Mattie's easy manner has rubbed off on him a little bit, but tonight he feels "heavy and loutish" again.
Outside the church Mattie looks around expectantly, but still Ethan hangs back. A man approaches her. It's Denis Eady. He offers to take Mattie home in his father's sled. She needs a little coaxing, so Denis jokes with her, telling her that he "kinder knew" she'd want to take a ride tonight. He brings out the sled and turns back the bearskin blanket to make room for Mattie at his side.
NOTE: Ethan is repulsed by Denis' flirtatious manner. In fact, he has always been disgusted by cheap banter." You will see that in college he was nicknamed "Old Stiff," presumably because he couldn't loosen up. Repeatedly in the novel Ethan will be unable to say what's on his mind. His inarticulateness causes him pain, as you might expect. It's also one aspect of an important theme- isolation. Being unable to express himself sets him apart from others.
Watching the scene, Ethan waits in agony, as though his life depended on what Mattie decides. Will she get in, or won't she? Mattie declines Denis' invitation and starts to walk away. Denis thinks she's just playing hard to get and urges her to climb aboard, but again she says no. Denis jumps from the sled and takes her arm, but she eludes him. Finally, he gives up and drives away.
Ethan scurries after Mattie and catches up with her in the black shade of the Varnum spruces. She is glad to see him, but he is almost bursting with joy that she turned Denis away. Also, he's impressed at how clever he's been to spy on her. Now he wants to dazzle Mattie with a memorable turn of phrase, but the best he can do is, "Come along."
Isn't it sad that Ethan, hoping for a rush of eloquence, can think only of "Come along"? How difficult it is for him to break out of his shell.
Before starting home they pause at the top of the steep hill on the Corbury road, where sledders have left numerous tracks. Ethan and Mattie decide to sled here tomorrow night if there's a moon. She tells him news of Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum- soon to be Mr. and Mrs. Hale. While coasting here, they almost ran into the big elm at the bottom of the hill.
NOTE: The description of Corbury hill may be of interest because it shows you a section of Starkfield. But later the site will assume much greater importance in the story. By having Ethan and Mattie notice the tracks and the elm tree, the author is preparing you for a return visit much later in the novel. You might not notice Wharton's use of foreshadowing the first time you read the book. When you are well along in the story, however, think back to these early chapters. You won't find many details in this carefully designed work that are included by chance.
The thought of Ned and Ruth being killed is especially chilling because, as Mattie declares, "They're so happy!" To Ethan, Mattie's words sound as if she had been thinking of herself and him.
NOTE: You've just been introduced to a pattern in Ethan's behavior that you will encounter again and again. Ethan has momentary illusions often, but not always, relating to Mattie. Why he suffers from spells of self-delusion is not altogether clear, but it's not uncommon for a person who is unhappy with reality to escape to a fantasy world once in a while. We all do it, but perhaps not as frequently as Ethan.
Ethan relishes the moment, but his joy is short-lived. A few seconds later Mattie speaks to him indifferently, and his spirits sink. The slightest change in Mattie's look and tone can buoy Ethan's mood or send him into despair. Tonight he tends toward desperation. He needs some assurance that Mattie cares for him. As they walk he tries to draw out her feelings: "I suppose... you should be leaving us." She thinks Zeena plans to send her away, but she tells Ethan indignantly that she won't go unless "you want me to go too-"
Unless he wanted her to go! Her response thrills him. As far as he's concerned, Mattie will stay with him forever. Again he gropes for words that will express his feelings. Again he can't find them, and settles for a feeble "Come along."
Nearing the house Mattie and Ethan pass through the Frome family graveyard. For years the sight of the headstones has reminded Ethan that like his ancestors he was doomed to live and die right here on his Starkfield farm. On this night his urge to flee the farm has vanished. He thinks that staying here with Mattie is all he'd ever want, and when they die, they'll lie together in this cemetery.
What can be said about a man who dreams of dying during his brightest moments? Certainly he's a morbid fellow. But beyond that, Ethan knows that happiness with Mattie is just not meant to be. He can't face the fact, however, so he deludes himself with a dream that can't come true.
When Mattie stumbles, he steadies her and slips his arm around her. She doesn't resist. What bliss! Triumphantly they walk across the frozen snow "as if they were floating on a summer stream."
Suddenly the thought of Zeena intrudes. In his mind's eye Ethan sees Zeena "Lying in their bedroom asleep, her mouth slightly open, her false teeth in a tumbler by the bed...." What a letdown! From bliss to bitterness in an instant. Ethan notices a dead cucumber vine on the porch, dangling like a black streamer tied to a door to signify a death. He wishes such a streamer had been hung there for Zeena.
Standing outside the door, Ethan tries one more time to tell Mattie what he feels. "Matt-" he says. And that's all. The rest of the words remain unsaid.
NOTE: "A GRANITE OUTCROPPING."
Wharton, in describing her intention to create a "New England" character, calls Ethan a "granite outcropping." There is a great deal of granite in the New England states, but more to the point is that granite is a hard, sturdy rock that doesn't break or erode easily.
Ethan thinks that as usual Zeena has probably been in bed since just after supper. The door key will be under the mat. But Ethan can't find it. A wild thought tears through him: Some tramps have been seen in the neighborhood. What if they.... He never finishes the thought, but you can finish it for him. Remember that cucumber vine on the front porch? Ethan has thoughts of death- and maybe even murder- constantly in his mind, although nothing you've seen so far ought to suggest he could kill another person- except perhaps in one of his illusions.
Ethan hears movement inside the house. Again he thinks of the tramps, but it's Zeena who has come down to open the door. Now you catch your first glimpse of Zeena in the flesh. Until now you've only heard about her. Edith Wharton intends us to see Zeena as particularly ugly- sort of an old crone. Ethan notices, as though for the first time, her "flat breast," her "puckered throat," and the deep "hollows and prominences of her high-boned face." What a contrast to Mattie who has "the colour of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks."
NOTE: You're seeing here one of Wharton's favorite stylistic techniques- the use of parallel descriptions. First she presents the unsightly Zeena in all her ugliness. In striking contrast she shows Mattie a line or two later. Keep this scene in mind. You'll see a parallel scene later in the story, but instead of Zeena, Mattie will be standing in the kitchen door.
Entering the house is like going into "the deadly chill of a vault." Why wasn't Zeena in bed? To explain, she says, "I just felt so mean [sick] I couldn't sleep." Is she telling the truth? Or has she stayed up to haunt him and Mattie, as Ethan suspects? Although there's no way to tell just yet, what's your guess?
Zeena lives up to her reputation as a crank: She turns a cold shoulder to Mattie and scolds Ethan for tracking snow into the house. Then she walks out of the kitchen expecting them to follow her up the stairs to the bedrooms.
Ethan hesitates. He doesn't want Mattie to see him following Zeena to bed, especially on this night of nights. He offers a lame excuse for staying downstairs in the cold, unheated kitchen. Mattie flashes Ethan a look which he interprets as a warning. Perhaps Mattie, too, thinks that Zeena has become suspicious of them. To play it safe, Ethan ascends the stairs behind his wife and disappears into the bedroom.
Have you noticed that since Ethan's story began, no more than two hours have passed?
Early the next morning you find Ethan and Jotham Powell, the hired man, in the woods cutting and hauling lumber. Ethan plans to sell the lumber to Andrew Hale, the Starkfield builder. He likes being out in the fresh morning air, where he can do his clearest thinking.
Ethan's thoughts turn back to last night. He and Zeena had gone silently to bed. For a while he had lain awake listening to Mattie moving about her room across the hall. He had stared at the crack of Mattie's light shining under his door. Doesn't Ethan seem like a teenager in love? He's so infatuated with Mattie that he wouldn't sleep until she turned off her lamp.
NOTE: While Ethan lies in the darkness with Zeena by his side, his eyes are glued to Mattie's light. You've seen the dark-light motif before, but never so clearly. Images of light- sun, fire, Silver (Mattie's last name) materialize almost every time Ethan looks at Mattie. Note, too, that light is akin to warmth. Whenever Mattie appears, the temperature rises, and you may find a reference to summer. Similarly, Zeena brings on the darkness and creates a chill wherever she goes.
Then all was silent except for Zeena's asthmatic breathing. What keeps coming back to him now is the memory of Mattie's warm shoulder pressed against his. He regrets his failure to kiss her when he had the chance.
How Mattie has changed since she came to Starkfield! So thin and pale at first, so fresh-faced and pretty now. Ethan recalls how Mattie had shivered during the first cold winter. But she had never complained. According to Zeena, Mattie had to make the best of it because she had no place else to go. (You can always depend on Zeena to strike a low blow. If she has a sympathetic streak in her, Edith Wharton keeps it well hidden.) In any case, family misfortune had, in effect, bound Mattie to them, much like an indentured servant.
Mattie's fate, it seems, was determined by her late father's recklessness with money. Orin Silver, Zeena's cousin, left the Connecticut hills for Stamford, where he married and took over his father-in-law's "drug" business. (Notice that Wharton puts drug in quotes, suggesting that Orin's business was slightly shady.) Orin had ambitious plans. From his wife's relatives he borrowed large amounts of money, which he promptly spent or lost. He died young. When his wife found out the real nature of the business, she died too, leaving Mattie a pauper.
NOTE: Money- or its absence- shapes the lives of the characters, determining what they can and cannot do. Many important decisions are based on money, and it is a major theme in the novel. In addition, Ethan worries about it constantly. While he suffers from a shortage of money, his story is rich with allusions to it. Note also that Mr. Silver's first name means "gold."
To earn a living Mattie tried stenography and sales, but her health broke. Her relatives declined to help. They took out their anger with Orin on his poor daughter, giving her nothing but advice.
When the doctor advised Zeena to look for household help, Mattie fit the bill. What Zeena liked especially was that she could scold and find fault with the girl to her heart's content. Mattie had to take it; she couldn't quit.
On the surface the Frome household appears peaceful. As a stranger, you probably wouldn't notice Ethan's tension. And you surely would not observe his vague dread about the future. But what happened last night- especially Mattie's sudden look of warning in the kitchen- has alarmed him. It has triggered a feeling that something quite awful, perhaps a blow-up between Zeena and Mattie, will soon take place.
Ethan trudges home from the sawmill, to be on hand if a fight starts. To his surprise, he finds Zeena wearing her best dress and bonnet, with a suitcase packed. Her pain is so severe that she's going to consult a new doctor in Bettsbridge, where she'll spend the night with her Aunt Martha Pierce.
Ethan's reaction is a little surprising. Wouldn't you expect him to feel ecstatic? Zeena will be gone for a day or so, and he'll be left alone in the house with Mattie. Instead, his reaction is relief. He's relieved to know that last night Zeena had spoken the truth. She was in pain, and she had not stayed up to harass Mattie and him, after all.
Even though Ethan can breathe easier now, he's not altogether happy, for he's worried about the cost of Zeena's trip. Two or three times she has traveled to see a doctor, each time bringing home expensive but useless remedies and health devices.
But Ethan's worry is promptly chased from his mind by one overwhelming realization: Mattie and he will have a night alone in the house. He wonders if the same thought has occurred to Mattie.
Before you look in on Mattie and Ethan spending a night together, Zeena must be taken to the train. She expects Ethan to drive her, but he can't wait to be rid of her. He arranges for Jotham Powell, the hired hand, to take her. His excuse is that he intends to collect cash for the lumber delivery he'll make to Mr. Hale that afternoon.
As soon as Ethan speaks these words he regrets them. Not only is he lying, but he knows that Hale won't pay cash. He never has. Moreover, to let Zeena think that he has money on hand is a terrible mistake, for now she's bound to go on a spending spree in Bettsbridge.
NOTE: Here's an instance of still another problem with words that plagues Ethan. As you've seen, words sometimes fail him. At other times, he says things that he regrets later. Ethan seems too stiff to blurt words out without thinking, but he does so. Moreover, he possesses an impulsive streak that leads him repeatedly into trouble. Notice the irony of his predicament: He can't find words which will help him but he is able to phrase those words which will get him into a fix.
If you've ever entertained a terribly irritating guest for a long time, you can appreciate Ethan and Mattie's relief after Zeena drives off. Suddenly they can relax. Mattie hums in the kitchen, and Ethan prepares to haul lumber to town. He'd like to stay near Mattie, of course, but he also wants to be home before nightfall. After a casual "So long, Matt," he is off.
All the way to Starkfield he envisions their evening together: He'll smoke his pipe; they'll talk and laugh while sitting by the stove like a married couple.
Ethan's spirits soar in anticipation. How odd to see this ordinarily silent and somber man whistling and singing. It's been years since his mood has been this cheerful.
Ethan can be affable, but he's had few chances recently to show it. Ever since college he's led a solitary, more or less silent, life. After his father's fatal accident Ethan carried alone the burdens of the farm and mill. He had no time to linger in town with other young men. Then his mother fell ill. Although she could talk, she rarely did, so Ethan lived in a silent house. In fact, "the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields." And the long silent winters didn't help, either.
NOTE: The quiet of country life appeals to many people. But the kind of profound silence that Ethan has endured tends to be excruciating. It's more than mere absence of sound, for it connotes loneliness and isolation. You can't break the silence even if you try, for no one will hear you. The heavy snow of winter intensifies the hush and keeps people apart.
In Ethan you find a human counterpart of the silence and isolation of a Starkfield winter.
Ethan's imprisonment in a silent world ended when Zenobia Pierce, a cousin, came from the next valley to help care for his mother during the last stages of the old woman's illness. If you can imagine it, Zeena's voice was "music in his ears." Not only that, Zeena took charge of the sickbed and household duties. At once, Ethan was set free. He started tending the mill and farm full-time again.
Out of gratitude and the fear of being left alone on the farm after his mother's funeral, he asked Zeena to stay and marry him, which she did. They made plans to sell the farm and mill as soon as they found a buyer, for Ethan was eager to live in a large town, where he might work as an engineer. Zeena also wanted to leave their isolated farm.
But no one would buy their place. And, as Ethan discovered to his dismay, Zeena needed to be noticed. She couldn't tolerate being one of the crowd in a large town. What was worse, however, was that a year into the marriage Zeena took sick. Her "sickliness," observed Ethan, gave her just what she wanted- a reputation in the community. Zeena became a famous sick person.
Sickness silenced her, but maybe Ethan was partly at fault, too. Zeena didn't say much because, as she claimed, Ethan "never listened." But who can blame him? Zeena spoke only to complain.
Zeena's silence troubled Ethan just the same. Could she have turned into one of those sad, deranged women known to inhabit certain lonely farmhouses in the area? He wondered whether Zeena kept still to conceal suspicions about Mattie and him.
Except for one gnawing thought, his mind is at ease as he rides to town. He regrets telling Zeena he'd get cash for the lumber. No doubt she'd nag him to pay for a new patent medicine or a wonder drug for her ailments. But far more important, the money might renew her interest in hiring a girl to replace Mattie.
Andrew Hale and his wife were longtime acquaintances of Ethan's family. Zeena occasionally called on Mrs. Hale, who in her youth had cared for many sick people. For Zeena, visiting Mrs. Hale was next best to seeing a doctor. Hale himself ran a fairly prosperous construction business, but the demands of a large family kept him from becoming wealthy. Indeed, he was always a little "behind" in paying his bills. In the past he'd waited three months before paying Ethan for the lumber he bought. Obviously, it won't be easy for Ethan to pry the cash from Hale for this delivery, and he knows it.
After Ethan unloads the logs he sits down in Hale's office. Embarrassed, he asks Hale for an advance of fifty dollars. As expected, Hale says no, he can't pay. He treats Ethan's request almost humorously. In fact, Hale says, he had hoped for a little extra time to pay this debt because business is off slightly, and he's fixing up a little house for Ned and Ruth, who will soon be wed. Ethan could cite his own need for prompt payment, but he's too proud to plead poverty. He leaves the office empty-handed.
While attending to other business in Starkfield, Ethan hears the jingle of sleigh bells. It's Denis Eady, who dashes by with a hearty greeting for him before heading his sleigh out of town, maybe toward the Frome farm. Ethan suspects the worst. He thinks that Denis, hearing that Zeena has gone to Bettsbridge, plans to visit Mattie for an hour or so. Jealousy storms in Ethan's heart, just as it did last night.
Before he leaves Starkfield he is stung by jealousy again. As darkness falls Ethan passes the Varnum spruces. In the shadows he sees and hears Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing. The two young lovers separate when they realize they've been spotted. Ethan finds momentary pleasure in having interrupted Ned and Ruth at the very place he and Mattie had stood less than twenty-four hours before. But he realizes enviously that Ned and Ruth don't have to hide their happiness.
NOTE: As Ethan goes about he utters hardly a word to anyone, yet through his thoughts you become better acquainted with him. Edith Wharton favored revealing her thoughts by means of long, inner soliloquies. Her friend, Henry James, encouraged her to use dialogue sparingly and to write it only when the conversation would bring out significant and distinctive qualities of the speaker. The reason: people are usually honest in their thoughts. In conversation with others, you can never be sure.
With spirits ebbed again, Ethan starts home. He listens for Eady's sleigh bells, but the lonely road is silent. Near the farm he notices the light in Mattie's room and he guesses that she's dressing for supper. He recalls how on the evening of her arrival, Mattie appeared for supper with smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck, and how Zeena stared at the girl sarcastically.
As always, Ethan passes his family graveyard. He glances briefly at the headstone of an ancestor also named Ethan Frome, buried with his wife, Endurance. The inscription says that the pair had lived together "in peace" for fifty years. Bitterly, Ethan wonders if he and Zeena would have the same epitaph.
In the barn, Ethan is relieved to see that Denis Eady's horse is not there. Perhaps he didn't come this way, after all.
The kitchen door is locked, just as it had been the night before. He calls out to Mattie, who comes to open the door in a minute or two. Ethan (and perhaps you, too) is struck with how similar tonight's homecoming is to last night's. Instead of facing Zeena's witchlike countenance, however, he is greeted by Mattie's shining face. Last night the kitchen had seemed like a chilly vault; tonight it's warm and friendly. The table is set and a bright fire is lit. Ethan is almost overcome with a sense of well-being.
Unable to contain himself, Ethan wants to know for sure if Denis Eady had paid a call on Mattie. "Any visitors?"
"Yes, one," answers Mattie. A blackness settles on Ethan, but it vanishes instantly when Mattie says the visitor had been Jotham Powell. Since Jotham had driven Zeena to the train, Ethan asks instinctively if she got there on time. Immediately he regrets mentioning Zeena's name, for it throws a chill between him and Mattie.
All through supper they feel Zeena's presence in the room. The cat jumps between them into Zeena's empty chair. (You're not told whether it's a black cat, but it probably ought to be.) Zeena's name keeps coming up in their conversation; it's almost as though she has cast a spell over them. Ethan has things to say to Mattie. He wants to be eloquent. At the mention of Zeena, however, he becomes inarticulate and talks about the weather.
This evening was meant for celebration. Why can't they enjoy a pleasant supper together? Are they so guilt-ridden by illicit thoughts?
NOTE: Guilt has long been associated with the New England personality. It probably originated in Puritan days, when rules about how to conduct your daily life were very strict. If you broke the rules you were punished severely, but physical punishment wasn't enough. In fact, the pain inflicted on you served to cleanse your wrongdoing. If you could be made to feel guilty, too, then you suffered more and were less apt to break the rules again.
From Zeena's chair the cat jumps onto the table and heads toward the milk-jug. Ethan and Mattie reach for the jug at the same time. Their hands meet and clasp for a moment longer than necessary. Unnoticed, the cat backs off and knocks the pickle-dish onto the floor. The dish shatters.
"Oh, Ethan, Ethan- it's all to pieces. What will Zeena say?" Mattie cries out.
Ethan says to blame the cat, but Mattie knows Zeena won't be satisfied. Zeena had kept the dish safely on the top shelf of the china closet for the past seven years. It had been a wedding gift, so special that it was not meant to be used. (In a sense the dish was like Zeena herself- tucked away uselessly in the dark.) The dish can't be replaced, either.
When Mattie begins to cry, you realize how strongly she fears Zeena. But Ethan comes to the rescue, taking the fragments of the dish and reassembling them on the shelf. From below you can't tell the dish is broken. Months might pass before Zeena discovers the break. In the meantime Ethan will check nearby towns for a duplicate dish.
What confidence Ethan shows here! For a few moments forlorn Frome gives way to firm Frome. It's a side of his personality you haven't seen before. And what inspires his burst of self-assurance? A weeping Mattie and an opportunity to outwit Zeena. Or perhaps it's panic: He's so intimidated by Zeena that he'll do anything to avoid her wrath. Regardless, his performance impresses Mattie. She calms down, and he feels proud of how he handled the crisis of the pickle-dish.
[Ethan Frome Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.