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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 2 | Summary



As the dancers leave the hall Ethan draws back into the shadows so he can continue watching Mattie unnoticed. He wishes he could be easy and flirtatious with her, but instead he feels "heavy and loutish." Mattie leaves the hall and looks quizzically around—she is waiting for Ethan to escort her home—but Ethan still doesn't make his presence known. Seeing her alone Denis eagerly offers to give her a ride home with his fancy "roan colt." Mattie doesn't answer directly, so Denis scurries down the snow-covered hill to ready the seat for her. As soon as Denis is away Mattie shouts, "Good-bye! Hope you'll have a lovely ride!" Denis races back and tries to encourage her into the cart, but Mattie is resolute. She'd rather walk home alone. As she sets off Ethan finally reveals himself and greets her sheepishly. Mattie is pleased to see him but admits she fears Zeena's health might have held him back tonight. Ethan says that nothing would have stopped him. He slips her arm through his and "fancied it was faintly pressed against her side; but neither of them moved." He longs to touch her face but is restrained. They watch the sledders coasting gracefully down the nearby hill and discuss how Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale almost crashed into the giant elm tree at the bottom of the hill.

As they walk Ethan's confidence grows and he suggests the rumors about Mattie, her plans to marry Denis Eady, might be true. Mattie is heartbroken, assuming Ethan's suggestion means he and Zeena no longer think she's a good fit in their house: "There's lots of things a hired girl could do that come awkward to me still—and I haven't got much strength in my arms. But if she'd only tell me I'd try." Mattie pouts that Zeena never talks to her and if she and Ethan were truly friends, he would confide in her what needed to be done to keep Zeena happy. Momentarily Mattie worries perhaps Ethan is conspiring with Zeena to get her out of the house, but when a fox bark startles her, she shrinks back into his arm.

The pair turns into the Frome homestead, walking first through the family graveyard. Each of the tombstones taunts Ethan, mocking "his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom," seeming to whisper, "We never got away—how should you?" Ethan promises Mattie he'll never let her go, then wishes for the spirits of his dead ancestors to conspire a way to keep Mattie with him. He looks at Mattie and thinks, "We'll always go on living here together, and some day she'll lie there beside me."

Typically when Ethan picks Mattie up from town, Zeena leaves a back door key under the mat before she goes to bed. Tonight, however, there is no key. They both know Zeena would never forget. Hoping the key simply fell out of its hiding spot, Ethan kneels on the ground and gropes through the snow. From his stooped position he sees a light on in the kitchen, then hears Zeena scurrying to the door. She throws the back door open, glaring at them. Silently she steps aside so the pair can come in. She claims she was feeling "too mean" to sleep, then criticizes Ethan for dragging his snow-covered boots into the kitchen. She stomps off to bed, suspicious when Ethan doesn't follow her. He lies and says he wants to go over some accounts, but when Mattie follows Zeena upstairs, Ethan relents and trudges up behind them.


Ethan's recollections of his past experiences flirting with women show how he's always been an outsider—the complete opposite of confident Denis Eady. Mattie's choice to walk home alone rather than hitch a ride with Denis showcases her bold independence while leaving readers (and Ethan himself) to question why Ethan is worthier than Denis of Mattie's affection. Throughout the novella the question lingers whether Mattie has true feelings for Ethan or if she is manipulating his emotions to secure her position in his home. This moment—when she would rather walk home alone than accept a ride with Denis Eady—is one of the rare moments in which her true self is visible. She doesn't know Ethan is watching her, so she cannot be manipulating him. However, it's unclear whether she refuses the ride because she doesn't trust Denis or because she doesn't want to give him the wrong idea. Perhaps she simply enjoys the quiet night and nature. The reader never learns what Mattie thinks or feels, leaving her motivations unclear.

As Mattie and Ethan walk home it becomes clear how compatible they are as a couple. Their conversation is easy and flirtatious. They enjoy many of the same things and easily make each other laugh. They would be a picturesque image of a courting couple if Ethan were not already married. While Ethan has social responsibility to escort Mattie home, their touching and laughing would certainly cause gossip should anyone see them. As they walk, they pass by the sledding hill, creating further foreshadowing of the accident that will eventually disfigure Ethan and maim Mattie. They discuss their friends Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale—a courting couple whose primary purpose in the story is to contrast Ethan and Mattie's relationship—who were almost killed when their sled barely missed the elm at the bottom of the hill: "Wouldn't it have been too awful?" Mattie exclaims. "They're so happy!"

When the reader finally sees Zeena at the end of the chapter, her presence creates a sharp contrast to Mattie's. Zeena is described as toothless, gaunt, with a "flat breast," puckered throat, and thin hair crimped under a multitude of tight pins. When Zeena opens the door Mattie moves forward "unwinding her wraps, the color of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks" cementing the contrast: Mattie symbolizes life and hope for Ethan, while Zeena symbolizes death and despair.

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