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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Chapter 9 | Summary



Daniel Byrne, the man Zeena arranged to transport Mattie's belongings to the train station, is waiting at the house by the time Ethan returns. He finds Mattie trying to carry her trunk downstairs on her own, which outrages him. He rushes up to help her and is struck by how bare and cold her bedroom seems now that her belongings have been removed. Mattie is weeping and Ethan "trembles" with emotion. Ethan calms himself and carries the trunk downstairs; Zeena doesn't even lift her eyes from her book when he passes.

At lunch Zeena announces that Jotham will be over soon to take Mattie to the station. Boldly Ethan says he'll drive Mattie there himself. Zeena tries to argue with him, but Ethan won't budge. Zeena narrows her eyes but relents. She retires immediately to her room and doesn't say goodbye to Mattie. Despite the fact Ethan is driving Mattie to the station, he is happy to be alone with her. They take a scenic route, pointing out places of interest or memories they shared during her time on the farm. They point out where they once had a picnic with friends and Mattie first served Ethan coffee, which was a special moment for him. He also points out where he found Mattie's missing locket. Ethan wishes Mattie would die rather than leave him, but then feels ashamed of the "dark" emotion. Mattie emotionally agrees, sobbing she doesn't know what she's going to do. Finally they pass the sledding hill and lament they never went coasting together. Ethan declares they should do it now. Mattie argues they don't have enough time, but Ethan says they have "all the time we want." They find an abandoned sled and walk quickly to the top of the hill. Although it's terribly dark and difficult to see the trees at the bottom, they leap onto the sled and gleefully coast down the hill. Ethan jerks the sled away from a giant elm and delights in feeling Mattie's momentary fear.

At the bottom of the hill Mattie boldly kisses Ethan, weeping her goodbyes. They cling to each other, shaking with emotion. As the clock strikes five Mattie begs Ethan to take her once more down the hill, but this time, to crash into the elm at the bottom, "So 't we'd never have to leave each other any more." Ethan is shocked, but Mattie persists. She has no hope than to die alongside Ethan. Desperate and confused he kisses Mattie deeply and agrees. Mattie pulls him up the hill and quickly climbs onto the sled. They soar toward the hill. Just before they crash Ethan sees a vision of Zeena's face hovering in the elm tree. He jerks away and they crash clumsily. When Ethan comes to he hears an animal twittering in the snow. He listens for a while and realizes it's Mattie, horribly injured, underneath him. He loses consciousness again, thinking about how his poor horse will be waiting on the road wondering why it hasn't been fed.


In this dramatic chapter the reader finally learns what happened on the night of Ethan's horrible "smash up." Sledding, or "coasting" as it's called in the novella, is a metaphor for Ethan's life. He "coasts" through difficult decisions, barely accepting fate as it lands in his lap—returning to the farm, marrying Zeena, allowing Mattie's dismissal, and so on—without fighting enough to steer his future in another direction. Although Ethan claims to have excellent vision and steering skills, he doesn't exercise these powers on the sledding hill or in much of his life. He doesn't have strong foresight (as seen in his bumbled attempt to repair the broken pickle dish before Zeena's return) and doesn't have the emotional strength or resources to make decisive "steering" decisions (as seen in his inability to leave Zeena and elope with Mattie). These crises reach new, horrific heights during the sledding trip. Although Ethan promises Mattie she has nothing to fear in their suicide run, again he falls victim. Rather than make a decisive run straight into the elm, Ethan wavers, second-guessing himself. Whether distracted or doubtful Ethan flinches, as he has done over and over in the novella. Despite his intentions to escape both he and Mattie are terribly injured, with Mattie paralyzed for life.

When Ethan regains consciousness after the accident, he thinks he hears an injured animal whimpering in the woods: "The stillness was so profound that he heard a little animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow." Previously Ethan had been distracted by the sound of his horse whinnying as they trudged back up the hill for their second run. Similarly the chapter ends with Ethan thinking about feeding the waiting horse. Not only do these seemingly insignificant details remind readers of Ethan's responsibility to his farm—responsibilities he couldn't bring himself to abandon in order to elope with Mattie—they reinforce the symbolism of Mattie's injuries. By comparing Mattie to an injured animal, Wharton prepares the readers for the terrible truth that Mattie is now completely reliant on him. He must care for her in the same way that he cares for the horse that injured its knee on the ice and the whinnying horse that begs for its meal.

Mattie's character undergoes strong transformations in this chapter. While she has spent the entire novella demure and obedient—she even cleans the kitchen for Zeena before being kicked out of the house—she is filled with desperation before the final sled run. Tension has been building as time slips away from her. As the clock strikes five and she hears the train coming toward the station, Mattie boldly tells Ethan her feelings and kisses him passionately. Again due to her desperate situation it's unclear whether Mattie truly loves Ethan or if she is clinging to her final hope, manipulating Ethan's emotions to help her commit suicide. Mattie's actions are bold and daring, especially given the era, but they're not entirely out of character. She boldly walks home from the dance rather than accept a ride from Denis Eady, wears vibrantly colored accessories, and takes the pickle dish from Zeena to use herself. It's obvious she is something of a rebel, not afraid of pursuing her desire, which begs the question, if she really had feelings for Ethan, why must she keep them hidden? At the end of the novella Mattie knows she has nothing left. She would rather die.

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