Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Ethan calls to Zeena upstairs to say dinner is ready, but she doesn't come down. He finds her sitting by the window in the bedroom. She doesn't acknowledge his presence in the room but says, "I'm a great deal sicker than you think." Composed Ethan politely asks to hear more. The new doctor told Zeena her health has deteriorated so much she needs an operation to survive. The only way to avoid an operation is to rest completely—no housework allowed. She is also to hire a proper house girl, which she has already taken the liberty of doing. She says they can use the $50 from Mr. Hale to help pay for it. Ethan is outraged. Not only has she entered into a financial contract without consulting him first, he believes her to be lying about the severity of her condition as an excuse to get rid of Mattie. The more he argues with her the more ammunition he gives her: "The doctor says it'll be my death if I go on slaving the way I've had to. He doesn't understand how I've stood it as long as I have!" Zeena shrieks. When she mentions Mattie leaving, Zeena laughs brutally: "It was an odd unfamiliar sound—[Ethan] did not remember ever having heard her laugh before." Zeena blames Mattie for all the suffering she endures, and says that she expects the girl to be gone by morning. Ethan tries every tactic to convince Zeena to change her mind, even pleading with her to consider what the neighbors will think, to which Zeena replies, "I know well enough what they say of my having kep' her here as long as I have." Ethan knows he's been beaten, and he hates Zeena for putting him in this position.

Downstairs it's Ethan who must break the news to Mattie. She is shocked and can't understand why Zeena would turn on her. Ethan is overwhelmed with emotion, weeping, kissing Mattie, and promising he'll never let her go. Mattie, who also cries, frantically tries to plan for her future. She has nowhere to go, no money, and no references. She fears her only option will be to move to a large city and become a prostitute. The couple's cries are interrupted by Zeena's quick approach to the dinner table. They all sit and try to eat their food. Zeena has an uncharacteristic appetite, relishing each bite of the meat pie Mattie has made. Mattie and Ethan sit in silence, unable to touch their food. When she's finished Zeena announces, "That pie of yours always sets a mite heavy," and she needs her special stomach powder to help with the heartburn. She goes to look for it and returns moments later cradling the broken pickle dish in her hands. She begins crying, demanding to know who would do this to her. Ethan tries to say it was the cat, but Zeena immediately knows he's lying: "I knew the cat was a smart cat, but I didn't know it was smart enough to pick up the pieces of my pickle-dish and lay 'em edge to edge on the very shelf he knocked 'em off of." Cornered, Mattie admits she took the dish down from its hiding spot. Zeena delights in chastising Mattie, calling her a criminal and a thief.

Analysis

Zeena continues to manipulate Ethan's sympathy for her to maintain the emotional upper hand in her marriage. Jotham Powell's firm refusal of Ethan's dinner invitation the night before suggested something was wrong with Zeena. Perhaps he let slip Mattie and Ethan had shared dinner together, or perhaps Zeena suspected that already. Nevertheless it's clear Zeena knows her marriage is on the brink of collapse and she pulls out all the stops, in the only way she knows how, to keep it together. Zeena is not likely actually sick—even Ethan struggles to believe her story—but no one dares question such a suffering woman. Zeena avoids these questions by martyring herself to "strength": although she is near death and desperate for an operation she will continue to suffer rather than inconvenience Ethan any further. Not even Zeena believes her lies, however, and she taunts Ethan with her decision to dismiss Mattie. Her side of the conversation is cunning and cruel. Not only do her words force Ethan to admit his lie about the cash advance from Hale, they also punish his untapped feelings for Mattie. She literally laughs in the face of his pain, cementing her role as the story's villain. She ends the conversation by drily noting that people in town may be gossiping about Ethan and Mattie, so her decision to release Mattie can be related to those rumors: "I know well enough what they say of my having kep' her here as long as I have."

When Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish, whatever doubts she may have had about the rumors are erased, and she feels vindicated in her harsh decision. Mixed into the rage, however, is grief. It's unclear whether Wharton intended for Zeena to be seen sympathetically in this moment, faced with the truth of her shattered marriage, or whether Zeena's tears are another example of emotional manipulation. Nevertheless, if the pickle dish symbolizes her marriage Zeena sees now that it is irreparably broken. While she blames Mattie, rightfully calling her a thief (Mattie has stolen Ethan's heart, after all), Wharton suggests everyone, including Zeena herself, is responsible for the damage. Ethan is obviously partly to blame for the shattered marriage, but the true culprit is the cat, a symbolic stand-in for Zeena in previous chapters. In choosing the cat to destroy the dish (rather than having it slip out of Ethan's or Mattie's hands, for example), Wharton suggests everyone, including Zeena, is partly responsible for the marital destruction.

Finally when faced with the imminent prospect of Mattie leaving, Ethan is unable to control his passion and boldly kisses her. Mattie pulls away from Ethan's kiss—"she slipped from him and drew back a step or two, pale and troubled"—and immediately begins panicking about her future. She doesn't give in to the moment or rejoice in their realized affection. This suggests that Mattie isn't interested in romance. She is primarily concerned with her future. Without the security of the Frome home or of Ethan's affections toward her, Mattie has absolutely nothing. Given this ulterior motive Mattie's affections toward Ethan for the rest of the novel are questionable: Is she really in love with Ethan, or, knowing Ethan's feelings toward her, is she desperately clinging to her last hope of security?

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