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Free Study Guide-Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton-Free Book Summary Notes
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CHAPTER 4

Summary

After Zeena leaves, Mattie and Ethan cheerfully set off to do their afternoon work; Ethan must do some hauling, and Mattie has housework to complete. As he works, he thinks about home. He remembers how nicely his mother had kept the house before her death and how it has again revived under Mattie's care. He also dreams about the evening that he and Mattie will spend together; he sees them talking happily, like a married couple. The mental picture delights him, and he whistles at his work.

Ethan is always warmed by human contact, but he has had little since his return from college, where they called him "Old Ethe," or "Old Stiff." Once his mother grew sick, she seldom spoke to him, and the duties of the farm left him little time for outside social activities. When Zeena arrived to care for his mother, the sound of her voice steadied Ethan. Zeena took care of his mother and the house efficiently, and he felt he owed her something. When she prepared to leave, after his mother's funeral, he felt such a dread of being left alone that he asked her to stay. If only his mother had died in spring, not winter, things might be different.

Early in the marriage, Ethan and Zeena had planned to pay off their debts, sell the farm, and try life in a large town, for Ethan did not particularly like farming. Unfortunately, their farm did not sell, and they were forced to stay in Starkfield. After a year of marriage, Zeena developed her sickliness. She also stopped talking, except to complain of her illnesses. He is again sorry that he told Zeena about the cash that Hale owes him; but he knows he probably won't be paid. Hale only dresses like a wealthy man; everyone knows he is often "behind."

When he goes to see Hale, Ethan unloads the logs and meets the customer in his genial, untidy office. Hale is friendly, but astonished at Ethan's request for payment. Ethan is too shy and proud to plead urgent need. Hale treats the whole matter as a joke, and Ethan leaves the office after an embarrassed silence. When Hale follows him and questions him further about need, Ethan's pride causes him to deny any urgency. Hale then says that he was going to ask Ethan for an extension on payment anyway, since Ned Hale Jr. is about to marry and he would like to fix up a place for his son and his son's bride. Before he departs, Hale reminds Ethan that he and Zeena were married not too long ago, a thought that makes Ethan feel grim.


Ethan walks around the deserted town, running errands in the cold weather. When Denis Eady passes him cheerily in his sleigh, Ethan wonders if the young man has heard that Zeena is gone and is heading out to see Mattie. As Ethan comes to the church corner where he and Mattie stood the night before, he catches Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale kissing. They gasp in embarrassment and run away. Ethan notes that at least they are engaged and can share their happiness in public.

With his errands complete, Ethan eagerly heads for home. At his gate, he notices light up in Mattie's window and hopes she is fixing herself up for dinner. When she first arrived, she had often done this, but Zeena discouraged it by staring at her sarcastically. As Ethan passes by the family graveyard, he notices the stone over the grave of his namesake; it says "Ethan and Endurance Frome" and states they were married for fifty years. He wonders if he and Zeena will get such a gravestone. At the house, Ethan puts his horses up and is happy to see that Denis Eady's sleigh is not in his barn. Ethan sings as he walks to the door, which he finds locked. He shakes it violently and calls out to Mattie. A light appears, and the door is opened by the young, smiling Mattie. How different she appears at the door than Zeena on the previous night! She has a red ribbon in her hair, the fire burns brightly, and the table is set with wonderful food. It is Mattie's way of communicating that she cares for Ethan, and it works. Ethan suddenly feels a sense of well-being.

Ethan asks Mattie if she has had any visitors. She laughs and says she has had one. Ethan scowls and inquires who. She smiles and says that Jotham has stopped to get a bit of coffee on his way back from taking Zeena to the Flats. The mention of Zeena's name puts a chill between them, and they sit down to dinner in silence. The cat creeps from Zeena's chair towards the milk jug on the table, and as they reach to shoo her away, the cat backs into the pickle dish, which shatters on the floor. Mattie is horrified, for the pickle dish is Zeena's special pride that is seldom used. At first Ethan tries to laugh it off, but he realizes the case is serious. He says he will go to town to buy another tomorrow, but Mattie reminds him that it was a wedding present, all the way from Philadelphia. Mattie begins to cry. It is as if their evening is shattered. But Ethan takes the pieces and puts them up in the china-closet. He will mend the dish tomorrow and try to locate a new one soon. This will buy them some time, and Zeena may not ever know. Ethan returns to Mattie and reassures her. He sees how his calm tone has subdued her, and he feels masterful.

Notes

This chapter is full of Ethan's fantasies about life with Mattie. Objects take on new meaning for him as he relates them to her. Even time takes on a different quality when he thinks of it in relation to time spent with Mattie; he thinks that fifty years would pass in a flash with her by his side. Ethan is also very jealous about her, worrying that Denis may have come out to see Mattie in his absence. He even dislikes the cat for stroking Mattie's leg.

The chapter also tells about how Zeena and Ethan came to be married, and it is a pathetic story. He asked her to marry him, for he felt he owed her something after she came and cared for his dying mother. He also dreaded being alone. The marriage, however, was doomed from the beginning. They were unable to sell the farm and escape from Starkfield, and Mattie grew sickly within a year. She also grew silent, except to complain, and Ethan longed for real human contact and conversation. Mattie's arrival was a true blessing to him.

The scene with Andrew Hale gives some background about the town and its inhabitants. Hale is a questionable gentleman and a bit extravagant. He knows Ethan well enough to know that he can embarrass him. When he asks if Ethan urgently needs the payment money, Ethan is too proud to admit that he does. As a result, Hale does not pay him what is owed, but plans to build a house for his son, who is soon to marry. As Ethan walks through the town on his errands, he actually sees Ned Hale near the church; he and his fiancee are kissing. When they spy Ethan, they are embarrassed and run away. Ethan feels a pang of jealousy, because he cannot be open about his affection for Mattie.

The broken pickle dish is extremely significant. An essentially useless item that was given as a wedding gift, it represents Zeena's marriage. Not only has Mattie taken Zeena's place in her kitchen and in her husband's mind, she has now used the one item Zeena took special pride in; and like the marriage, the pickle dish is also broken. Mattie knows the seriousness of the situation, but is also calmed by Ethan. He decides not to tell Zeena about the accident; instead he will repair the broken dish and then try to replace it with a new one. For once, he feels powerful and in control

Color is important throughout the novel. White, the color of winter and the snow, represents coldness and blankness, like Ethan often feels. The grim earth-tones are usually associated with Zeena. In this chapter, it is important to note that the pickle dish is red, just like the ribbons that Mattie wears in her hair and her winter scarf. Throughout Ethan Frome, red is usually associated with Mattie and her cheerful character. But with the breaking of the red pickle-dish, there is some foreboding concerning matters of the heart.

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