Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
After Ethan's father died and Ethan returned to the farm from school, his mother gave him a room at the back of the house to serve as his "study," a place for his desk and books. He has always taken refuge there; now that he has given Mattie the stove from the room, it is uninhabitable for most of the year.
After everyone has gone to bed, Ethan goes to his study. Just before he himself goes to bed, he finds a note from Mattie on the kitchen table. It simply says, "Don't trouble, Ethan;" but it is the first time she has ever written anything to him. He rereads the note and thinks that such a cold, dead piece of paper represents his future with Mattie. He despises the thought of living out his years with Zeena. He goes to lie down on his couch, and throws away a cushion that Zeena made for him when they were engaged. Even the cushion is hard and uncomfortable.
Ethan remembers the story of a man, a young fellow his own age, who ran away from a life of misery by going west with another young woman. The wife divorced him, he prospered, and the couple came back to visit. The deserted wife had done well too, running a successful restaurant in town. Ethan springs up and goes to his desk to start a letter to Zeena. He tells her she can sell the farm and keep the money. Here he stops, for he remembers that the farm and mill are mortgaged. Even if there were not, Zeena could never run the place. She would have to go back to her people, the same fate Zeena was forcing on Mattie. In addition, he would have trouble supporting Mattie. He looks at a newspaper sitting nearby with trips to the west advertised. Ethan knows he does not have the money to pay for he and Mattie to go. He feels he is a prisoner for life.
Ethan returns to the sofa, and tears well up in him. He watches the moon dawn on the landscape and contemplates everything in life in terms of Mattie. He remembers that they were supposed to go coasting tonight; now they will probably never be able to go. As he nurses his misery, the beauty of the landscape mocks him until he falls asleep.
Ethan wakes with the realization it will be Mattie's last day with him. She appears in the room and knows he has been there all night. She looks lusterless, even with the red scarf wound around her. Ethan stirs, and they go together to start the kitchen fire. As the sun comes up and Mattie goes about her work, Ethan feels better. He feels that with the return of daylight, Zeena, too, will see that it is insane to let Mattie go.
Ethan and Mattie try to reassure each other, but they are not bolstered. Ethan goes out to the barn to clean stalls with Jotham. The hired hand says that he knows a fellow, Daniel Byrne, who can take Mattie's trunk over to the train station. Ethan is floored and wonders how Jotham knows about Mattie's leaving. Ethan says he is not sure Mattie is going. The blood pounds in his temples.
The two men go into breakfast. Zeena, alert and active, remarks that the geraniums have been neglected. She then turns to Jotham and asks when Mattie's trunk will be picked up. Jotham glances at Ethan and says "about noon." Zeena says that she would like to go over the contents with Mattie before the trunk is picked up, implying that Mattie has stolen something. The two women leave the kitchen, and Jotham remarks that he guesses he better tell Daniel to come around after all.
Ethan feels rebellious and walks into town for no purpose. Everything he sees reminds him of Mattie, and he decides he must do something to prevent her from leaving. He decides to again ask Hale for some cash and proceeds towards his house. He meets Mrs. Hale on the road, and she says that Mr. Hale is home sick. She adds that she has heard of Zeena's recent trip to the new doctor and sympathizes with Ethan about all the trouble he has had in his life. Although he is grateful for her rare understanding of his problems, he is more concerned about gaining Mr. Hale's sympathy in order to obtain money. Then he suddenly sees himself as he is -- a poor man and the husband of a sickly woman. He decides he has no right to ask the Hales for money to serve his selfish purposes. Ethan walks back to his farm without seeing Hale.
The rather deserted study at the start of the chapter represents an abandoned part of Ethan's life when he was active and challenged by learning. Now the room is cold, just like his own life; and Ethan knows without Mattie it will grow colder and more lifeless. Mattie's note only makes things worse, and he begins to grasp at straws as he tries to plan an escape. At first, Ethan fantasizes about going to the west with Mattie, but he knows that the west is too far and too expensive. He cannot go there because he is too poor, and Zeena is too sickly to abandon. Ethan's imagination can no longer carry him out of his predicament. By the end of the chapter, Ethan is totally despondent, for he sees his life as it really is.
When Ethan wakes he tries to ignore all of what he has heard and thought the night before. Then Jotham tells him that Daniel Bryne can deliver Mattie's trunk to the train, and he is brought back to the reality of the situation. His refusal to accept that Mattie is really going to leave shows Ethan at his most pathetic. Again, as Ethan walks confusedly towards the Hale's house, he is a pathetic picture. Mrs. Hale's pity is attractive to Ethan, and he feels "less alone with his misery" after his conversation with her. But her pity takes away all his resolve. He suddenly feels poor and selfish; as a result, Ethan returns home without asking Hale for the money.
Although Ethan Frome is not a "psychological novel" per se, Edith Wharton effectively charts the wanderings of Ethan's mind throughout the book. In this chapter, she successfully captures his mental frustrations. Ethan desperately wants to act, but he cannot seem focus on an appropriate action due to Mattie's impending departure from the farm. He is emotionally crippled by the thought of having to spend the rest of his life in silence, with no relief from his hard and cold wife.