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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 1 | Summary



It is 24 years earlier. Young Ethan Frome (in his late 20s) walks quickly through the falling snow to reach the nearby church. As he walks he thinks about the science classes he took years earlier at the technical college in Worcester. He had enjoyed the classes immensely but was forced to return to the farm when his father died unexpectedly. Even though he's no longer in school, Ethan enjoys how his knowledge gives deeper meaning to the events around him, and he wishes he knew more.

At the church Ethan peers through the windows and watches the dancers, the floor "thronged with girls and young men." He is particularly interested in Mattie Silver, his wife's beautiful young cousin, who is dancing with the wealthy grocery store owner's son, Denis Eady. Mattie wears a red scarf wrapped around her hair, and she is strikingly beautiful. Ethan watches her in awe, annoyed other men can dance with her and touch her. He is particularly annoyed that Mattie dances with Denis Eady, whom Ethan loathes: "Hitherto Ethan Frome had been content to think [Denis] a mean fellow; but now he positively invited a horse-whipping."

Ethan is clearly obsessed with Mattie, whom he regularly goes to town to fetch on late evenings when she goes into town to socialize. Mattie has been living with Ethan and Zeena for over a year, acting as Zeena's nurse. When her parents died unexpectedly and lost their fortune, Mattie had nowhere else to go. Because Ethan and Zeena can't afford a hired nurse, the arrangement was made for Mattie to act as their household help in exchange for room and board. Having Mattie in the house has transformed Ethan, who searches for excuses, such as picking her up from town hall dances, to steal private moments with her. He had thought these moments were special to both of them, but seeing her dance happily with Denis Eady suggests indifference to Ethan: "He even noticed two or three gestures which, in his fatuity, he had thought she kept for him."

The unhappiness he feels watching Mattie dance with another man reminds him of the unhappiness and fear he feels when considering Mattie might soon leave their home. Zeena has begun criticizing Mattie's housework and "inefficiency" as a nurse. Ethan loves Mattie's youth and dreaminess but recognizes Zeena needs "the help of a stronger arm than the one which lay so lightly in his during the night walks to the farm." Now Ethan wakes early to finish up Mattie's household tasks before attending to the farm in the hope that Zeena will think Mattie's work is improving. Recently however, Zeena snuck up behind him and saw him mopping the floors. She didn't say anything but "turned away silently, with one of her queer looks." Later she coldly suggested Mattie will be leaving soon because she is of marrying age and Denis Eady is clearly interested. Ethan was not interested in discussing this and claimed he was late for starting his chores. Zeena stared at him blankly, replying, "I guess you're always late, now you shave every morning."


Chapter 1 introduces the theme of isolation, creating strong images of an ostracized Ethan Frome. As Ethan hurries through the snow-covered streets at midnight (alone), he thinks about the science courses he used to love but can no longer pursue. He thinks about his parents who died, leaving him alone in the world. He thinks about his loveless marriage to sickly Zeena, whom he married out of desperation not to be alone. He thinks about all this while he crouches in the freezing cold, staring through the window at a warm, bustling dance he hasn't been invited to. He watches the woman he's secretly in love with dancing with a young man he despises, who touches, talks to, and flirts with Mattie in ways Ethan can only dream about.

The only time Ethan feels fulfilled is when he's alone with Mattie. He views her as his soul mate: "It seemed to Ethan that [with Mattie] ... words had at last been found to utter his secret soul." Without even seeing Zeena yet, the reader can surmise Mattie is everything Zeena is not: young, healthy, beautiful, vivacious, intelligent, and entertaining. The reader is given a clear vision of Mattie through Ethan's gaze. Her red scarf, the color symbolic of passion, stands out (much like her character) against the stark, white background. Even Mattie's last name—Silver—suggests value in Ethan's life. Because his feelings for Mattie are illicit (he is already a married man, after all), Ethan's passion forms two prongs: passion toward Mattie and wild jealousy toward anyone who challenges her affection. He watches Denis Eady, for example, suppressing the violent desire to horsewhip him. These intense emotions show how Ethan has few outlets, causing emotions to grow and twist unhealthily. It's clear from the opening scene Ethan probably won't make good decisions when it comes to his relationship with Mattie.

This opening chapter also creates strong foreshadowing for one of the novella's main turning points: Zeena's confrontation of Ethan over his relationship with Mattie. As Ethan lusts after Mattie in the church, he thinks about Zeena as a sickly, weak woman. In spite of her weakness, however, Zeena appears to be a sharp surveyor of her surroundings. Ethan doesn't think she's noticed his changed behavior since Mattie moved in, but her comment about Ethan shaving every day and her reaction to seeing him mop the floor early in the morning suggest Zeena's suspicion of the pair's relationship.

Questions for Chapter 1

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