Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 3 | Summary



Ethan and Zeena don't speak a word to each other inside their frigid bedroom. Zeena silently takes her medicine, wraps her head in flannel, and lies down with her back to Ethan. Ethan undresses quickly and blows out the light so "he should not see her when he [takes] his place by her side." He lies in bed for some time thinking about Mattie's shoulder pressed against him, wishing he'd had the courage to kiss her. He remembers how she was a "colorless slip of a thing" when she arrived in Starkfield, but now her skin glows as radiant as "the sun's red and of the pure glitter on the snow." When she arrived Ethan was sure she would hate the difficult farm life, particularly with Zeena's silent fault finding, but she thrived. As Zeena became more critical, however, Ethan felt torn between wanting Mattie to fight back and to remain servile so as not to lose her place. As he thinks about these things Ethan's feeling of dread grows.

The next day Ethan prepares a lumber shipment for a local builder, Andrew Hale. Worried that Zeena might cause trouble with Mattie, however, he asks his hired man, Jotham Powell, to make the delivery instead. He rushes home filled with dread. He is shocked to see Zeena sitting at the dinner table wearing her traveling clothes. She announces her "shooting pains" are back and she's headed to another town to seek treatment. Whenever she leaves on these excursions she always returns home laden with expensive tinctures and treatments that never cure her. She assumes Ethan will protest her leaving, but he is delighted by the prospect of a night alone with Mattie. Rather than fight Zeena about her trip, he offers to have Jotham drive her straight to the train station. He claims he would do it himself but he has to make a lumber delivery to Andrew Hale (the same delivery Jotham is already making). Zeena barely reacts to Ethan's words. She drinks the rest of the serum from her medicine bottle and pushes away from the table.


This chapter serves to give the reader further insight into Zeena's character. Her decision to visit the out-of-town doctor seems irresponsible given her apparent suspicions of Ethan and Mattie's relationship. Throughout the novella Zeena is characterized as sharply critical, manipulative, and cunning: "Zenobia's fault-finding was of the silent kind." Therefore, it seems possible that Zeena is actually traveling out of town to test her theories: Can Ethan and Mattie be trusted in her absence? Foolishly Ethan ignores his fears of Zeena's suspicions and wholeheartedly plans for his romantic night alone with Mattie: "[Zeena's] abrupt resolve to seek medical advice showed that, as usual, she was wholly absorbed in her health."

Zeena's health is a point of curiosity in the novella. While she is always sick it's unclear exactly what she suffers from. She seems to enjoy being ill and the attention it brings. She spent her youth as a caregiver for Ethan's parents, and as soon as they died she became sickly herself. She travels to various doctors seeking treatment for a wide array of symptoms but never gets any better: "It ain't done me a speck of good, but I guess I might as well use it up" she says while swallowing the remainder of a medicine bottle. She is adamant in her need for hired help, saying that "the doctor don't want I should be left without anybody to do for me," which suggests her desperation for Ethan to stay with her. If she suspects Ethan may want to leave her she manipulates her illness as a reason why he should stay, suggesting that without a caregiver she would die.

The oppression of Zeena's illness and Ethan's moral obligation to care for her is further highlighted by the graveyard near the Frome house, filled with Ethan's dead relatives. When he passes by the tombstones each day he thinks not only of the eternity he will spend underground with Zeena (while his present existence already feels like an eternity) but also of the entrapment of his situation: "'We never got away—how should you?' seemed to be written on every headstone." The only escape Ethan feels from his stifling existence is in Mattie's presence. Her face, which he describes as "part of the sun's red and of the pure glitter on the snow" is a gorgeous contrast to his surroundings, including Zeena, which are described as "mute and cold as a grave-stone." It is no wonder he is quick to leap at an opportunity to relish in it.

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