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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 5 | Summary



After dinner the pair sits by the fire, just as Ethan imagined. Ethan takes his seat next to Zeena's abandoned rocking chair, and Mattie sits on the other side of the fire to sew, out of Ethan's line of sight. Disappointed Ethan asks Mattie to sit next to him, in Zeena's chair. She obliges momentarily but complains she cannot see well enough to sew and returns to her own seat. Although their relaxation begins awkwardly, they eventually begin to "talk easily and simply," speaking of "every-day things, of the prospect of snow, of the next church sociable, of the loves and quarrels of Starkfield." Ethan laments this is the night he should have taken Mattie "coasting" or sledding. He promises to take her tomorrow night "if there's a moon." Mattie laughs and says that would be lovely.

Ethan is fascinated by the way his words have the power to make Mattie smile, laugh, or blush: "It was intoxicating to find such magic in his clumsy words, and he longed to try new ways of using it." He tries to be flirtatious, saying he saw Ned and Ruth kissing in the shadows, but it embarrasses Mattie. Ethan quickly redirects the conversation to Ned and Ruth's upcoming wedding but can't stop himself from insinuating it will be Mattie's turn to get married next. Mattie doesn't look up from her sewing and says she wishes Ethan would stop talking about it. Ethan, seized by emotion, grasps Mattie's sewing in his hand and kisses it. Mattie rises quickly, rolls up the sewing, and pretends to check on the fire. Then she lights her candle and climbs the stairs, wishing Ethan a good night. He follows, lamenting in their only night alone together "he had not even touched her hand."


Ethan and Mattie's evening together ends in dissatisfaction. Although it is their one chance to be alone, nothing happens, perhaps because Ethan doesn't want a romantic fling with Mattie; he wants to marry her. He spends the entire day dreaming not about sleeping with Mattie but about the conversations they'll have. The domestic bliss he acts out is constantly interrupted by the reminder he is already married. First he sees Zeena's face superimposed onto Mattie's when she sits in Zeena's rocking chair, and later, when the cat leaps from the rocking chair to chase a mouse the momentum keeps the chair rocking, as if Zeena were still in the room. Just as it had throughout the dinner, Zeena's presence lingers in the room making it difficult for Ethan and Mattie to relax. As a result the evening is stilted and awkward, as seen in Ethan's misjudged joke about the kissing couple and his ungracefully desperate kiss of Mattie's sewing.

As the tension builds as the night winds down, Mattie acts coolly toward Ethan, abruptly packing away her sewing and retiring to bed. There are two ways of interpreting these actions. One theory is Mattie is disappointed Ethan hasn't acted on his romantic feelings for her, and being a woman in this era she must remain demure. The second theory is Mattie isn't really interested in Ethan. When she sees his desperation growing as he grasps and kisses her sewing, she must withdraw before finding herself in an uncomfortably passionate situation. The story never directly answers the question. Although Mattie wants to die with Ethan at the end of the novella, it remains unclear whether romantic passion is the sole motivation. As in many Naturalistic stories the characters are shown to be very conflicted.

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