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PROLOGUEOne thing that sets Ethan Frome apart from other novels is the way the story is told. Edith Wharton doesn’t just start at the beginning and tell you what happens. Rather, she uses a narrator who knows no more about Ethan Frome than you do.
The narrator, who remains nameless, is a young engineer. He tells you how he uncovered Ethan’s story bit by bit. He recounts what people said to him and what he observed during the months he spent in Ethan’s hometown one winter long ago.
This opening chapter is a prologue to the main story. It introduces the narrator, describes the town and surrounding countryside, describes some townspeople, and starts to build some of the novel’s major themes. But most of all, it stirs your curiosity about Ethan Frome.
The narrator you directly by saying “If youk now Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post office.” The post office is where he first laid saw Ethan. Every day at noon Ethan parked his buggy at the curb and picked up mail at the post office window. He rarely got anything except the local newspaper and an occasional package of patent medicine addressed to his wife, Zeena Frome.
Ethan seldom talked to anybody. When someone addressed him, he answered quietly with as few words as possible before mounting his buggy and driving slowly back to his farm. He appears to be a cheerless, broken man.Ethan catches the narrator’s eye because his looks are striking. Tall and powerful, Ethan must have been a strong man at one time. But now he hobbles when he walks, his shoulders sag, and he has a red gash, the scar of an old wound, across his forehead. To the narrator, Ethan looks as though he “was dead and in heel”. Yet he is only fifty-two years old.
Harmon Gow, Starkfield’s stage driver, explains Ethan’s run-down appearance and his age .It was the “smash-up,” he says, an event that occurred twenty-four years ago.It was a terrible smashup, Gow recalls, and it should have killed him. But, he adds, the Fromes are tough, and Ethan will probably live to be one hundred.
The narrator, it turns out, has spent a whole winter in Starkfield. An engineer for a power company, he had been sent to do a job in nearby Corbury Junction. A strike delayed the work, so he had plenty of time to get to know the area. Winter, he tells us, “shut down on Starkfield.” For close to six months the town sags under the weight of snow.
A little later,the narrator’s life converges with Ethan’s. Their encounter gives us a chance to learn the whole story behind his unusual behavior and appearance.
First you’re told how the two men made contact. The narrator works at a powerhouse in a place called the Junction, a ten-mile commute from Starkfield. Each day he takes a buggy or sleigh provided by Denis Eady, the owner of the town’s livery stable. He is dropped off in Corbury Flats, three miles away, where he catches a train to the Junction. One day in midwinter, Eady’s horses “fell ill of a local epidemic.” Harmon Gow advises the narrator that Ethan Frome’s horse was still healthy, and for a dollar Ethan might be persuaded to drive over to the Flats each morning and back again in the afternoon.
The narrator expresses wonder that Ethan needs money so badly.
“Well, matters ain’t gone any too well with him,” replies Gow. For the last twenty years, he continues, Ethan’s had problems making ends meet on his farm. Although it’s always been tough for Ethan, things had gotten even worse. His father got kicked in the head by a horse, went soft in the brain, and gave away most of his money before he died. Then Ethan’s mother took sick with a disease that took years to kill her. And now Zeena Frome, Ethan’s wife, is sickly, too.
“Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping,” says Gow.
Every day for a week after that, Ethan carries the narrator back and forth to Corbury Flats. Ethan doesn’t say much, answering questions in monosyllables. He hardly even looks at his passenger. To the narrator, Ethan is like a piece of the “mute, melancholy” winter landscape, a piece of “frozen woe.”
Only twice during many trips to and from work does Ethan emerge from his shell. Once he reveals that long ago he had briefly been in Florida, but the memory of it is now “all snowed under.” Another time the narrator misplaces a popular science book on bio-chemistry.
Later he sees the book in Ethan’s hand. Ethan says bitterly that the book contains things “that I didn’t know the first word about”
CHAPTER ISuddenly you’re swept back at least a generation to the time when Ethan Frome is a young man. You see him walking rapidly through the empty streets of Starkfield. It’s a clear night and as usual in the novel, it is wintertime. Places and names you already know from the opening chapter are mentioned again.
Ethan walks past Michael Eady’s new brick store. (He must be related to Denis Eady, whose horses will someday take the narrator to work. You’ll find out.) Then there’s Lawyer Varnum’s house. (He’s the father of Ruth Varnum. You know that years from now Ruth will be Ned Hale’s widow, and the narrator will be renting a room from her in this very house.)
Ethan had attended a technological college in Worcester, but because his father was killed he dropped out after a year. Ever since, images of what he had learned come to him unexpectedly. You are told that Ethan has a fanciful mind that seeks deep meanings in ordinary events.
Evidently Ethan doesn’t want to be seen outside the church. He avoids the rays of light shining on the snow and hugs the shadows until he finds the window he wants. Inside the building it looks like the end of a cheerful, noisy evening of music and dancing. Suddenly a young man rounds up the crowd for the last dance, a lively Virginia reel. In the darkness Ethan’s heart is beating fast, as though he himself is one of the dancers.
However, his pulse quickens not from the dance but from the anticipation of a particular girl with a cherry-red scarf on her head. He spies her dancing with Denis Eady. She’s enjoying herself. In fact, she’s having too good a time to Ethan, who studies her closely. That she finds pleasure dancing with that Denis Eady, bothers Ethan.The girl is Mattie Silver, a cousin of Ethan’s wife, Zeena. For the past twelve months Mattie, who is about twenty-one years old,has been living with the Fromes, earning her keep by doing housework and aiding Zeena, who is in poor health.
The moment Mattie stepped from the train Ethan fell for her. To him she was “like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.” She brought laughter into the house. Most of all, she enabled Ethan to show off his knowledge of natural phenomena. He pointed out the constellations and lectured her on rock formations. Ethan and Mattie drew closer to each other because they liked sunsets, clouds, and the sights they saw together in the fields and woods.
Throughout their marriage Ethan and Zeena have hardly talked to each other. Zeena spends most of her time alone, tendingto her ailments. When she speaks it’s usually to complain or scold. She is dissatisfied with Mattie’s work around the house and grumbles about the girl’s inefficiency. Zeena has a point, for Mattie isn’t good at housekeeping. Now and then Ethan stops his own work in order to help Mattie with hers. One day Zeena discovered Ethan churning butter (Mattie’s task) and turned away in silence after giving him “one of her queer looks.”
Did that look show that Zeena knows his private thoughts about Mattie? Ethan thinks she does. On the other hand, perhaps he’s just feeling guilty. he recalls one conversation in particular. One morning dressed and shaved, Zeena informed him that she’d spoken to her doctor, who told her never to be without help in the house. What will she do, she asks Ethan, after Mattie leaves. They can’t afford to hire another girl. “Why on earth should Mattie go?” asks Ethan.
“Well, when she gets married, I mean.”
Ethan, noticeably flustered by Zeena’s talk about Mattie’s leaving, can’t continue to discuss it. “I haven’t got the time now; I’m late as it is,” he says.
She replies sharply, “I guess you’re always late, now that you shave every morning.” That comment frightens Ethan more than any other because it is a fact that he started shaving daily only since Mattie moved into the house. He thought that Zeena didn’t notice such things about him.
Does Zeena know his private thoughts? He suspects that she does. But if he thought it over , he’d probably realize that he needn’t worry over his suspicion, for Zeena is caught up in her own woes and lacks the vision to see beyond them.
The two mile walks that he and Mattie have been taking from the village to the farm have become precious to him. Those night walks have brought him and Mattie together. With her arm in his, they have gazed at the stars and reveled in the beauty of nature.
The passion he has for Mattie, however, is ruined by feelings of uncertainty. Although she acts as though she’s fond of Ethan, she appears to act the same way with Denis Eady as they dance together on the other side of the window. Every time she smiles at Denis, Ethan grows less sure of himself. He wonders how his dull talk could ever interest her.
CHAPTER IIPoor Ethan! Without any self-confidence he stays hidden in the shadows as the dancers come out of the hall. Instead of coming forward, offering Mattie his arm and heading toward home, he waits behind the door to see what Mattie will do. Ethan hasn’t felt this shy in a long time. Mattie’s manner has rubbed off on him a little bit, but tonight he feels “heavy and loutish” again.
Outside the church Mattie looks around, but still Ethan hangs back. A man approaches her. It’s Denis Eady. He offers to take Mattie home in his father’s sled. She needs a little coaxing, so Denis jokes with her, telling her that he “kinder knew”she’d want to take a ride tonight. He brings out the sled and turns back the bearskin blanket to make room for Mattie.
Watching the scene, Ethan waits in agony, as though his life depended on what Mattie decides. Will she get in, or won’t she? Mattie declines Denis’ invitation and starts to walk away. Denis thinks she’s just playing hard to get and urges her to climb aboard, but again she says no. Denis jumps from the sled and takes her arm, but she gets away from him. Finally, he gives up and drives away.
Ethan goes after Mattie and catches up with her. She is glad to see him, but he is almost bursting with joy that she turned Denis away. Also, he’s impressed at how clever he’s been to spy on her.
Nearing the house Mattie and Ethan pass through the Frome family graveyard. For years the sight of the headstones has reminded Ethan that like his ancestors he was doomed to live and die right here on his Starkfield farm. On this night his urge to flee the farm has vanished. He thinks that staying here with Mattie is all he’d ever want, and when they die, they’ll lie together in this cemetery.
When Mattie stumbles, he steadies her and slips his arm around her. She doesn’t resist. Triumphantly they walk across the frozen snow “as if they were floating on a summer stream.” Suddenly the thought of Zeena comes. In his mind’s eye Ethan sees Zeena “Lying in their bedroom asleep, her mouth slightly open, her false teeth in a tumbler by the bed….” From bliss to bitterness in an instant.
Standing outside the door, Ethan tries one more time to tell Mattie what he feels. “Matt-” he says. And that’s all.
Ethan thinks that as usual Zeena has probably been in bed since just after supper. The door key will be under the mat. But Ethan can’t find it. A wild thought tears through him: Some tramps have been seen in the neighborhood. What if they…. He never finishes the thought, but I can finish it for him. Remember that cucumber vine on the front porch? Ethan has thoughts of death- and maybe even murder- constantly in his mind.
Ethan hears movement inside the house. Again he thinks of the tramps, but it’s Zeena who has come down to open the door. Now you catch your first glimpse of Zeena in the flesh. Until now you’ve only heard about her. Edith Wharton intends us to see Zeena as particularly ugly- sort of an old crone. Ethan notices, as though for the first time, her “flat breast,” her “puckered throat,” and the deep “hollows and prominences of her high-boned face.” What a difference to Mattie who has “the color of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks.”
Entering the house is like going into “the deadly chill of a vault.” Why wasn’t Zeena in bed? To explain, she says, “I just felt so mean [sick] I couldn’t sleep.” Is she telling the truth? Or has she stayed up to haunt him and Mattie, as Ethan suspects? Zeena lives up to her reputation as a crank: She turns a cold shoulder to Mattie and scolds Ethan for tracking snow into the house. Then she walks out of the kitchen expecting them to follow her up the stairs to the bedrooms.
Ethan hesitates. He doesn’t want Mattie to see him following Zeena to bed, especially on this night of nights. He offers a lame excuse for staying downstairs in the cold, unheated kitchen. Mattie flashes Ethan a look which he sees as a warning. Perhaps Mattie, too, thinks that Zeena has become suspicious of them. To play it safe, Ethan ascends the stairs behind his wife and disappears into the bedroom.
I have noticed that since Ethan’s story began, no more than two hours have passed.
CHAPTER IIIEarly the next morning you find Ethan and Jotham Powell, the hired man, in the woods cutting and hauling lumber. Ethan plans to sell the lumber to Andrew Hale, the Starkfield builder. He likes being out in the fresh morning air, where he can do his clearest thinking.
Ethan’s thoughts turn back to last night. He and Zeena had gone silently to bed. For a while he had lain awake listening to Mattie moving about her room across the hall. He had stared at the crack of Mattie’s light shining under his door. Ethan seems like a teenager in love. He’s so in love with Mattie that he wouldn’t sleep until she turned off her lamp
Then all was silent except for Zeena’s asthmatic breathing. What keeps coming back to him now is the memory of Mattie’s warm shoulder pressed against his. He regrets his failure to kiss her when he had the chance.
How Mattie has changed since she came to Starkfield. So thin and pale at first, so fresh-faced and pretty now. Ethan recalls how Mattie had shivered during the first cold winter. But she had never complained. According to Zeena, Mattie had to make the best of it because she had no place else to go. (You can always depend on Zeena to strike a low blow.) In any case, family misfortune had bound Mattie to them, much like an indentured servant.
To earn a living Mattie tried stenography and sales, but her health broke. Her relatives declined to help. They took out their anger with Orin on his poor daughter, giving her nothing but advice.
When the doctor advised Zeena to look for household help, Mattie fit the bill. What Zeena liked especially was that she could scold and find fault with the girl to her heart’s content. Mattie had to take it; she couldn’t quit.
Ethan trudges home from the sawmill, to be on hand if a fight starts. To his surprise, he finds Zeena wearing her best dress and bonnet, with a suitcase packed. Her pain is so severe that she’s going to consult a new doctor in Bettsbridge, where she’ll spend the night with her Aunt Martha Pierce.
Ethan’s reaction is a little surprising. Wouldn’t you expect him to feel happy? Zeena will be gone for a day or so, and he’ll be left alone in the house with Mattie. Instead, his reaction is relief. He’s relieved to know that last night Zeena had spoken the truth. She was in pain, and she had not stayed up to harass Mattie and him, after all.
Even though Ethan can breathe easier now, he’s not altogether happy, for he’s worried about the cost of Zeena’s trip. Two or three times she has traveled to see a doctor, each time bringing home expensive but useless remedies and health devices.
Mattie and he will have a night alone in the house. He wonders if the same thought has occurred to Mattie. Zeena must be taken to the train. He arranges for Jotham Powell, the hired hand, to take her. His excuse is that he intends to collect cash for the lumber delivery he’ll make to Mr. Hale that afternoon.
As soon as Ethan speaks these words he regrets them. Not only is he lying, but he knows that Hale won’t pay cash. He never has. To let Zeena think that he has money on hand is a terrible mistake, for now she’s bound to go on a spending spree in Bettsbridge
CHAPTER IVIf you’ve ever entertained a terribly irritating guest for a long time, you can appreciate Ethan and Mattie’s relief after Zeena drives off. Suddenly they can relax. Mattie hums in the kitchen, and Ethan prepares to haul lumber to town. He’d like to stay near Mattie, but he also wants to be home before nightfall. After a casual “So long, Matt,” he is off.
All the way to Starkfield he envisions their evening together: He’ll smoke his pipe; they’ll talk and laugh while sitting by the stove like a married couple. Ethan’s spirits soar in anticipation. It is odd to see this ordinarily silent and somber man whistling and singing. It’s been years since his mood has been this cheerful.
Andrew Hale and his wife were longtime acquaintances of Ethan’s family. Zeena occasionally called on Mrs. Hale, who in her youth had cared for many sick people. For Zeena, visiting Mrs. Hale was next best to seeing a doctor. Hale himself ran a fairly prosperous construction business, but the demands of a large family kept him from becoming wealthy. Indeed, he was always a little “behind” in paying his bills. In the past he’d waited three months before paying Ethan for the lumber he bought. Obviously, it won’t be easy for Ethan to pry the cash from Hale for this delivery, and he knows it.
After Ethan unloads the logs he sits down in Hale’s office. Embarrassed, he asks Hale for an advance of fifty dollars. As expected, Hale says no, he can’t pay. He treats Ethan’s request almost humorously. In fact, Hale says, he had hoped for a little extra time to pay this debt because business is off slightly. Ethan could say his own need for prompt payment, but he’s too proud to plead poverty. He leaves the office empty-handed.
While attending to other business in Starkfield, Ethan hears the jingle of sleigh bells. It’s Denis Eady, who dashes by with a hearty greeting for him before heading his sleigh out of town, maybe toward the Frome farm. Ethan suspects the worst. He thinks that Denis, hearing that Zeena has gone to Bettsbridge, plans to visit Mattie for an hour or so. Jealousy storms in Ethan’s heart, just as it did last night.
Before he leaves Starkfield he is stung by jealousy again. As darkness falls Ethan passes the Varnum spruces. In the shadows he sees and hears Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing. The two young lovers separate when they realize they’ve been spotted. Ethan finds pleasure in having interrupted Ned and Ruth at the very place he and Mattie had stood less than twenty-four hours before
With spirits gone again, Ethan starts home. He listens for Eady’s sleigh bells, but the road is silent. Near the farm he notices the light in Mattie’s room and he guesses that she’s dressing for supper. He recalls how on the evening of her arrival, Mattie appeared for supper with smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck, and how Zeena stared at the girl sarcastically.
In the barn, Ethan is relieved to see that Denis Eady’s horse is not there. Perhaps he didn’t come this way, after all. The kitchen door is locked, just as it had been the night before. He calls out to Mattie, who comes to open the door in a minute or two.
Ethan is struck with how similar tonight’s homecoming is to last night’s. Instead of facing Zeena’s witchlike countenance, however, he is greeted by Mattie’s shining face. Last night the kitchen had seemed like a chilly vault; tonight it’s warm and friendly. The table is set and a bright fire is lit.
All through supper they feel Zeena’s presence in the room. The cat jumps between them into Zeena’s empty chair. (You’re not told whether it’s a black cat, but it probably should be.) Zeena’s name keeps coming up in their conversation; it’s almost as though she has cast a spell over them. Ethan has things to say to Mattie. At the mention of Zeena, however, he becomes inarticulate and talks about the weather.
This evening was meant for celebration. Why can’t they enjoy a pleasant supper together? Are they so guilt-ridden by bad thoughts?
From Zeena’s chair the cat jumps onto the table and heads toward the milk-jug. Ethan and Mattie reach for the jug at the same time. Their hands meet and clasp for a moment longer than necessary. Unnoticed, the cat backs off and knocks the pickle-dish onto the floor. The dish shatters. “Oh, Ethan, Ethan- it’s all to pieces. What will Zeena say?” Mattie cries out.
Ethan says to blame the cat, but Mattie knows Zeena won’t be satisfied. Zeena had kept the dish safely on the top shelf of the china closet for the past seven years. It had been a wedding gift, so special that it was not meant to be used. (In a sense the dish was like Zeena herself- tucked away uselessly in the dark.) The dish can’t be replaced, either.
When Mattie begins to cry, you realize how strongly she fears Zeena. But Ethan comes to the rescue, taking the fragments of the dish and reassembling them on the shelf. From below you can’t tell the dish is broken. Months might pass before Zeena discovers the break. In the meantime Ethan will check nearby towns for a duplicate dish.
CHAPTER VSupper is over. You’ll now see whether Ethan’s dream will be realized- whether he’ll have a cozy evening by the fire with Mattie.
Mattie sits by the lamp with a bit of sewing. Feeling content after a good day’s work, Ethan stretches his stocking feet to the fire and lights his pipe. He asks Mattie to sit closer, for he wants to look at her. When she settles in Zeena’s rocker, Ethan has a momentary shock. He sees Zeena’s face instead of Mattie’s
Uneasy in Zeena’s place, Mattie moves back by the lamp. The cat, like a stand-in for its mistress, jumps into the empty chair and through narrowed eyes watches Mattie and Ethan speak.
They talk naturally and simply of everyday things: the weather, Starkfield gossip, the next church social. Eavesdropping on them, you’d think this is just another evening in a long string of evenings they have shared. Ethan knows they’re pretending to be married, and he’d like to continue the illusion as long as he can.
At length he says to Mattie, “This is the night we were to have gone coasting.” His tone suggests that they’ll go another time. “We might go tomorrow if there’s a moon.” Seeing Mattie’s enthusiasm, he becomes bolder. He describes the perils of coasting down the Corbury road, especially at the corner down by the big elm. “If a fellow didn’t keep his eyes open he’d go plumb into it,” he says. Neither Mattie or Ethan wants to be frightened half to death on Corbury road, so they agree that maybe they’re better off staying home
Mention of the Corbury road emboldens Ethan to reveal what he’d been thinking about all evening. He says to Mattie that under the Varnum spruces “I saw a friend of yours getting kissed.” Ethan hopes that talking about Ruth and Ned’s kiss might somehow lead to some small intimacy between him and Mattie. But as soon as he has spoken the words, he wishes that he hadn’t, for they were too vulgar and out of place. And they make Mattie blush.
Mattie’s embarrassment forces Ethan to keep his distance. He alludes to Ruth and Ned’s marriage, a disguised effort to talk to Mattie about her future. Does she want to marry? He could ask her directly, but he won’t dare.
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