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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 4 | Summary



As soon as Zeena leaves Ethan rushes to work. He wants to complete the day's chores quickly so he can spend as much time with Mattie in the evening as possible. Ethan imagines what their evening together will be like: they'll talk and laugh and sit by the fire like an old married couple. He feels relieved that "his fears of 'trouble' with Zeena were unfounded" and Mattie's position is certainly secure if Zeena is investing in her ill health again. He realizes how much he has missed socializing and that a "silence had deepened about him year after year" living alone with Zeena. He considers how silent the house has been: first his father died, then his mother fell silent through illness. When Zeena arrived to act as his mother's nurse, her presence made him feel human again. As winter crept in after his mother's death Ethan asked Zeena to marry him. He didn't love her, but he simply couldn't face another lonely winter in silence. Before long Zeena fell silent too, and Ethan was once again alone.

As he rushes through town preparing for the night of lively conversation he imagines having with Mattie, Ethan can't stop thinking about his lie to Zeena that Hale would be paying him $50 cash. Feeling trapped Ethan decides to ask Hale for an advance, even though he knows the man will refuse him. Mr. Hale is a goodhearted man, and Ethan knows Hale will give him the money if it's an emergency. He can't bring himself to ask Hale, however, and leaves empty handed. As he leaves Hale calls out, "See here—you ain't in a tight place, are you?" Ethan promises everything is fine and quickly rushes home. Along the way he sees Denis Eady headed toward his house, as well as Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing in the shadows. Both sights unleash wild envy in Ethan's chest: that Denis should be able to court Mattie in the open and that Ned and Ruth should be able to kiss affectionately without fear of punishment. As he rushes home he imagines Mattie in her room preparing herself for dinner, remembering how she had smoothed her hair and decorated it with ribbon for dinner on her first night in his home. When he reaches home he is surprised to find the door locked, just as it had been the previous night. When Mattie answers her appearance provides a sharp and striking contrast to Zeena's the night before: "She stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against the black background of the kitchen." Ethan's feelings for Mattie, however, are the exact opposite of his feelings for Zeena.

Mattie wears her plain clothes but has tied a red ribbon in her hair. The table is set beautifully, with Zeena's few best dishes, including her prized red pickle dish, on display. Ethan feels "suffocated" with happiness yet still feels lashes of jealousy toward any recipient of Mattie's affection, including Zeena's cat, which paws and mews around Mattie's feet. The two sit down to eat. Ethan is full of anticipation but the conversation progresses awkwardly. Zeena's name is mentioned a few times and throws "a chill between them ... Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of eloquence; but the mention of Zeena's name had paralysed him." They talk blandly about the weather, Mattie's eyes downcast the entire time, and about Jotham Powell's work. Suddenly Zeena's cat leaps onto the table and sends the red pickle dish hurtling to the floor. It shatters. Ethan tries to laugh it off, saying it was the cat's fault, but Mattie is stricken. It is Zeena's most prized possession, which she never uses, not even with company, because it was sent from a relative in Philadelphia and would therefore be impossible to replace. Zeena will know Mattie used the dish and will demand to know why. Desperate to calm her Ethan promises to mend the dish before Zeena returns. He sweeps the pieces into his hands and places them in a precarious pile atop Zeena's china cabinet.


Plunging headlong into work so he may enjoy a peaceful evening with Mattie, Ethan considers how he got to this point in his marriage. He is excited to spend the evening with Mattie not only because he is attracted to her but also because it affords him a rare moment of sociability uncommon in his isolated life. Although Ethan is the "strong, silent" type of man, he admits relishing in the camaraderie when, at college, men would greet him as "Old Ethe" or "Old Stiff": "There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished." Despite having lived in it for years, Ethan is terrified of silence. While his mother was alive she had been a "talker," but as her illness set in she became more and more silent. Zeena, after a few years on the farm, had had a similar outcome. When considering how both his mother and Zeena became "queer" over time, he surmises that's what women do. Historically farm women in the early 1900s suffered from isolation and loneliness far more than men because social expectations relegated them to the house nearly 24 hours a day to cook, clean, and care for children. Men who worked and ran errands in town were granted more opportunities to socialize, so while they might have been lonely, too, it may not have driven them "mad" the same way as with women.

Ethan's morality is tested in this chapter. He lied to Zeena before her trip, saying he couldn't take her to the train station because he had to collect a cash advance from Mr. Hale. The lie has a twofold negative effect: it is the first lie he has told his wife (to cover up for his desired relationship with Mattie) and it gives Zeena the impression he has cash to spend, always a mistake when his wife is headed to a new doctor eager to fill her bags with pills and tinctures. To make amends Ethan decides to actually make the trip to Hale's farm and ask for the advance even though he knows it's unlikely Hale will pay. This shows Ethan is reluctant to become immoral. He hopes fate will step in and make his path to Mattie an easy one.

The main event of this chapter is the long awaited private dinner. The contrast between Zeena and Mattie is once again illuminated when Mattie answers the locked door in exactly the same manner as Zeena the night before. While Zeena was cold, sharp, and haggard, Mattie is beautiful, welcoming, and warm. While she hasn't primped as much as Ethan had anticipated, she has run a crimson ribbon through her hair. The red-colored ribbon appears again, this time to remind readers of the strong temptation the couple face in this scene. By choosing red, a color symbolic of sexuality, Wharton hints at the sexual repression and frustration that underscores the personal struggles in Ethan Frome. The color returns again and again, also reflected in the red pickle dish sitting on the table. Zeena's cat acts as an ominous stand-in for her, first watching the table from by the fire and then leaping directly onto it, shattering the red pickle dish.

The symbolism of the broken dish is clear. The broken dish could be interpreted two ways: first as a symbol of Ethan and Zeena's broken marriage (the dish was a wedding present, after all), or as a symbol of Ethan's shattered illusion of romance with Mattie. From the very beginning Ethan and Mattie's night is awkward and stilted. Their conversation stutters, never flowing freely, often halted by the mention of Zeena's name, an impossibly permanent presence in their romance. Whenever Mattie seems happy, Ethan is fiercely jealous, wishing he (not the cat or the humorous story about Jotham Powell) had caused her to smile. Mattie spends much of the meal sitting with "downcast lids" unable to meet Ethan's gaze. The passion and excitement of their midnight walks is gone. Yet Ethan cannot admit he was wrong about their love just as he cannot admit to Zeena the pickle dish has been broken. Rather than fixing the broken dish immediately or simply throwing it away, Ethan precariously balances all the pieces in a hiding spot, essentially postponing the consequence.

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