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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 8 | Summary



Rather than be with Zeena that evening Ethan retires to his private "office"—a tiny room similar in size to a closet—even though there is no heat. Before heading to bed Mattie leaves him a note on a catalogue from a seedman that simply says, "Don't trouble, Ethan." When he reads it Ethan is overcome with emotion. He despises Zeena and can't imagine spending the rest of his life with her: "He was too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes." He had heard rumor of a young man across town who had moved away with his lover, leaving his farm in his ex-wife's possession. The ex-wife had sold the farm, opened a shop, and prospered. The young man and his lover had gone on to have a beautiful child and a happy life. Resolute he decides to leave Zeena the farm and run away with Mattie. He figures if Zeena fails on the farm and must return to her family, she will live no worse a life than the one she is damning Mattie to. He writes Zeena a letter with his intentions and begins researching locations where he and Mattie can relocate. Immediately he sees that he won't be able to afford the move. He won't even be able to afford a train ticket for himself out of town: "There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life ... tears rose in his throat and slowly burned their way to his lids."

Suddenly Mattie appears at the door, shocked that Ethan has spent the night in the freezing space. Seeing her face gives new hope to Ethan's dream. He doesn't care how much it costs; he will run away with her. He tells her not to worry then rushes out to the stable. There Jotham Powell asks what time he should pick up Mattie. Ethan says, "Oh, it ain't so sure about Mattie's going—" which prompts a strange look from Jotham. Ethan quickly harnesses his horses with the plans of rushing to Hale's house and once again asking for the cash advance. He'll have to lie this time, saying it's to pay for Zeena's new hired girl, but he thinks Hale is kind enough to give him the money. Along the way he runs into Mrs. Hale who praises Ethan's dedication to his sickly wife: "I always tell Mr. Hale I don't know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a' had you to look after her ... You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome." Stricken, Ethan realizes he cannot manipulate the Hales' sympathy and abandon his wife. He trudges home, defeated.


This chapter is filled with prison imagery as Ethan feels his hopes for the future collapsing around him: "The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-wardens handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life." As usual he remains indecisive about whether he is capable of abandoning Zeena and eloping with Mattie. He tentatively considers moving West with Mattie but blames his poverty (rather than his own hesitation) on its impossibility. Interestingly Mattie never suggests they should run away together. She only tells Ethan not to "trouble." The two have shared a single kiss, which Mattie pulled away from, while never discussing their feelings, fears, or hopes for the future. The fact that her note is written on a catalogue from a "seedman" further hints at the couple's repressed sexuality. Nevertheless, Ethan is certain they are soul mates (although he's never asked Mattie how she feels) who will spend the rest of their lives together. Ethan is obsessed with Mattie, or at least with his fantasy of her. Throughout the novella Ethan has avoided facing reality (at the dance, with the broken dish, and now with the elopement) so he hides, cowers, and wavers. Although he melodramatically compares his marriage to prison and Mattie to the one ray of sunshine in his life, he is unable to make the tough decisions that could possibly lead to his happiness.

Despite all of Ethan's melodramatic passion for Mattie, he finds himself unable to lie to the Hales, suggesting his honesty is more important than his happiness. At the time of the novella's setting, following strict religious and moral codes were a social expectation. The expectations that hold Mattie back from speaking her mind, forcing her into a position of demure servitude, are the same expectations that keep Ethan from chasing his dreams. While there are people brave enough to shatter those expectations—Ethan heard a rumor of a man from another town who left his wife—in reality people in Starkfield rarely leave their expected places. Even Denis Eady, the rich, handsome, young man with a bright future, will likely take over his father's shop and spend the rest of his life in town. Ethan's entire family lived and died on the farm (as seen in the family graveyard). Without an example to follow Ethan flounders, relying on morals and social expectation to dictate his decisions.

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