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Free Study Guide-Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton-Free Book Summary Notes
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CHAPTER 10 (THE EPILOGUE)

Summary

The narrator enters the Frome house and does not know which of the two women was responsible for the complaining voice he has heard earlier. A tall, thin, older woman with an expressionless face appears to prepare some food and moves in silence. A smaller woman, also with gray hair, sits huddled in the chair by the stove. Only her head turns. Her features are sharp, and she has a witch-like stare. The narrator notices that everything about the kitchen is poor and broken down.

Ethan comments that the kitchen is so cold that the fire must have gone out. The one in the chair complains that Zeena has just made the fire, saying, "I thought I'd be frozen stiff before I could wake her up and get her to tend to it." The tall woman delivers dinner as if she has not heard a word. Ethan introduces her as his wife, Zeena. He introduces the woman in the chair as Mattie Silver.

The next day Mrs. Hale Jr. is glad to know that her boarder is alive and has survived the snowstorm. She is amazed to find that the narrator has spent the night at Ethan Frome's, for he is probably the only person, except herself and the doctor, who has set foot in the house for twenty years; Ethan is too proud to let people inside to see his miserable life. Mrs. Hale asks several questions. The narrator answers that he spent the night in a room that was once a study. Mrs. Hale says that she used to go often to see the Fromes before she had her own troubles. She now tries to see Mattie and Zeena once in the summer and once in the winter, and always when Ethan is gone. She cannot stand to look at his face; the pain of it almost kills her.

The narrator feels Mrs. Hale looking at him, gauging whether she could trust in him as the one person in the world who has seen what she has seen. The narrator waits patiently, and then Mrs. Hale begins to talk. She tells him how bad it was when Mattie was brought into her house after the accident. She sat with Mattie the first night, and when Mattie gained consciousness, she told her. . .but Mrs. Hale breaks down crying and cannot repeat Mattie's words. She calms down and tells the narrator that the story of Zeena sending Mattie away went around the village the next day; but no one could figure out why Mattie and Ethan would be sledding when they ought to have been heading for the train. No one has ever known what Zeena thought, though she nursed Ethan from the start and then took Mattie back to the farm as soon as she could be moved. Mrs. Hale remarks that there was nowhere else for Mattie to go. She then adds that it has been a miracle how Zeena has managed her own ills and also taken care of Ethan and Mattie. The narrator remarks that it must be horrible for all of them.

Mrs. Hale tells how none of them are "easy people." Even though Mattie was a very sweet girl before the accident, her suffering has soured her. Zeena, always cranky, sometimes gets in fights with Mattie. Ethan's face at such times could break your heart. Mrs. Hale believes that Ethan suffers the most. Zeena does not have the time to suffer, and Mattie is too demanding. She comments that it is a pity for all three of them to be shut up together in winter, and without a dime to spare. Mrs. Hale takes a deep breath, as if she is finished with the tale, but then she starts once more. She tells the narrator that it is a pity that Mattie lived. If she had died, Mrs. Hale goes on, Ethan might have been spared his living death. The only difference between the Fromes in the graveyard and the ones in the house is that the Frome women in the graveyard have to hold their tongues.

Notes

This chapter starts with a skip forward in time, to return to the narrator's visit to Ethan's house. The two women are described, and there is great irony in their situation. The maimed Mattie has turned into a worse harpy than Zeena, who has been forced into the caretaking role. But since Zeena has the doctoring impulse and a penchant for the uncomfortable, she does not seem miserable, only hard and cold as always. Ethan obviously ha suffered the worse. He has not only seen the love of his life turn into a shriveled harpy, but carries the guilt of the unsuccessful accident. In addition, he is stuck in his bitter wife's debt.

The thoughts and judgments of the last half of the Epilogue belong to Mrs. Hale. This is a convenient device to reveal the environment in which the Fromes exist; it also allows the narrator to avoid coming to any conclusion for himself. As she tells the story of the accident to the narrator, she breaks down crying and cannot repeat Mattie's words. The reader is left to imagine how horrific they were. Ending with Mrs. Hale's words about the graveyard makes the narrator's horror more clear. He is literally speechless over the whole situation.

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