Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Ethan Frome depicts a nightmarish world, completely empty of the warmth and joy to be found in loving human interaction. Set in the cold and harsh landscapes of Starkfield, Massachusetts, the story is told by a narrator who attempts to discover what tragedy caused the enigmatic Ethan Frome’s literal and spiritual crippling. Piecing together information, the narrator learns that years earlier Ethan married Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his mother during her final illness. Shortly after the wedding, Ethan realized that his was a marriage without love and that he had simply exchanged the suffocating responsibility of a sick mother for the suffocating tie of a sick wife. Ethan, once filled with aspirations, finds instead that he is lashed to a wife whom he loathes and to a near-sterile farm that he cannot sell.
With lightness and life, Mattie Silver (Zenobia’s younger cousin) comes to the Frome house to help with chores. Mattie and Ethan fall in love, yet the strictures of conventional morality and Frome’s own strong sense of duty and loyalty prevent him from doing any more than voicing a tender, painfully pathetic love avowal. When Mattie is forced to leave, she decides that she would rather die than be separated from Ethan. Her plan, to crash their sled into an elm at the bottom of a steep slope, is tacitly agreed to by Ethan. However, the two survive the death ride, and the lovers’ suicide pact takes on a cruel twist. Mattie...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Ethan Frome is twenty-one years old when he marries Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his sick mother during her last illness. It is a wedding without love. Zenobia, called Zeena, has no home of her own, and Ethan is lonely, and so they are married. Zeena’s talkativeness, which was pleasing to Ethan during his mother’s illness, quickly subsides, and within a year of their marriage, Zeena develops the sickliness that is to plague her husband all her life. Ethan becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He is an intelligent and ambitious young man who hoped to become an engineer or a chemist. He soon, however, finds himself stuck with a wife he detests and a farm he cannot sell.
The arrival of Mattie Silver brightens the gloomy house considerably. Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, comes to Starkfield partly because she has no other place to go and partly because Zeena feels in need of a companion around the house. Ethan sees in Mattie’s goodness and beauty every fine quality that Zeena lacks.
When Zeena suggests that Ethan help Mattie find a husband, he begins to realize how much he is attracted to the girl. When he goes to a church social to bring Mattie home and sees her dancing with the son of a rich Irish grocer, he realizes that he is jealous of this rival and in love with Mattie. On his way home with her, Ethan feels his love for Mattie more than ever, for on that occasion, as on others, she flatters him by asking him...
(The entire section is 914 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Ethan Frome, neither a commercial nor a critical success when first published, actually offended many of Wharton’s contemporaries by its harsh portrayal of New England life and its characters’ failure to triumph over adversity. Nevertheless, its popularity gradually increased until, by 1920, it had become the best-known and most widely read of Wharton’s works. Wharton herself believed that too much attention was paid to Ethan Frome at the expense of her other novels. Indeed, to judge her career solely by this single novella would prove misleading, because it is very unlike her other major works in setting, tone, and characterization. Like much of her other work, however, it deals with the relationship between an individual and that individual’s society.
Structured as a frame tale, the story unfolds from the point of view of Lockwood, a young engineer on assignment in the isolated New England village of Starkfield. His curiosity about one of the town’s characters, the physically deformed but striking Ethan Frome, drives him to construct a “vision” of Ethan’s history, assembled from information gathered in conversation with various townspeople and from his own observations of the fifty-two-year-old farmer.
The significance of this structure cannot be overestimated; Wharton even adds an uncharacteristic introduction to explain her decision to employ this literary device, which achieves perspective by creating an...
(The entire section is 935 words.)
Ethan Frome is the story of a man who, following the death of his father, gives up his education and other opportunities to return to the family farm in Starkfield, Massachusetts, to support his ailing mother. When his mother dies, Ethan, overcome by loneliness, impulsively marries Zeena Pierce, an older cousin who helped nurse his dying mother. Within a year of their marriage. Zeena becomes ill and Ethan must again assume the role of caregiver and give up his dreams of moving to a large town and becoming an engineer. Ethan's outlook changes, however, when Zeena's cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to live with them as Zeena's aid. She shares Ethan's sense of wonder and sensitivity to the appeal of natural beauty. Mattie is everything that Zeena is not. She restores Ethan's ability to imagine happiness and, before long, a mutual but unexpressed passion develops.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is sent to Starkfield on business. He first meets Ethan in the town's post office and, finding the fifty-two-year-old "ruin of a man" the "most striking figure in Starkfield," becomes fascinated by his life story. He learns from a local resident that Ethan has looked this way ever since his "smash-up" twenty-four years ago. Bit by bit, the narrator hears fragments of Ethan's story and constructs a narrative based on the paradoxical accounts of his life. His task is facilitated when, one stormy winter night, he is given a rare invitation to spend the...
(The entire section is 1263 words.)
Everyone in Starkfield, Massachusetts, knows Ethan Frome and his tragic story—everyone but the narrator, who has arrived to work on an engineering project in nearby Corbury Junction. He gleans what he can in bits and pieces from the people in town with whom he comes in contact.
When he sees Ethan for the first time, he is stunned at this “ruin of a man.” Ethan is taller than most people in town, and he has a “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain.” He has the look of someone who has lived a lot but would rather not have done so; though he is only fifty-two, Ethan seems much older since the “smash-up” twenty-four years ago. The narrator sees Ethan come to the post office every day to pick up his mail, though he rarely receives anything more than the local newspaper. Occasionally he carelessly pockets an envelope with the name Mrs. Zeena (or Zenobia) Frome from a patent medicine company. Although people say hello to Ethan, few engage him in conversation. When Harmon Gow tells the narrator that the Fromes are a sturdy bunch and he will probably live to be a hundred, the narrator exclaims, “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” Harmon explains that Ethan was an only child growing up in this bleak, New England town from which “most of the smart ones get away.”
The narrator has his lodgings in the mansion home Mrs. Ned Hale (Ruth) shares with her mother. Ruth gossips and expresses her views regarding almost everything, but she will not gossip about Ethan Frome. When the engineer asks Harmon Gow about Mrs. Hale’s reluctance to speak of Ethan, he is told that Ruth was the first one to see them and probably cannot bear to speak of it. His landlady’s reticence to speak coupled with his personal contact with Ethan make the narrator eager to understand this man’s life.
Dennis Eady arranges for the engineer’s ride to the train station at Corbury Flats. A local epidemic hits the town and spreads to the stables. For several days, the narrator has no way to get to the train depot; Eady suggests that Ethan may be interested in a little extra money and would probably drive him to the station. When the newcomer is surprised at the suggestion, Eady explains that the Frome farm and mill was never a prosperous operation, but Ethan’s parents made matters worse toward the end of their lives. Ethan’s father got kicked in the head and “gave away money like Bible texts” in his...
(The entire section is 927 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
It is evening, and a young Ethan walks through the darkness toward the church. He reflects on his time as a student of science. Although his father’s death several years earlier caused him to leave those studies, he is still intensely interested in the world around him. Light and the sound of dance music radiate from the church, and Ethan moves into the shadows to peer in the basement window. He sees young men and women on the dance floor surrounded by the older women and people playing instruments. The young people are preparing to leave. His eye is taken by a lively girl with a cherry-colored scarf tossed over her head, and his heart races. The young people have burst into one last dance, and the girl is in the arms of Dennis Eady, an Irishman with no lack of self-confidence. Ethan grows jealous and waits for her to appear. She is Mattie Silver, his wife’s cousin, and he regularly walks into town to escort her home.
Mattie is from Stamford and is now living with them because Zeena needs help at home. Mattie is working without pay because Zeena does not want Mattie to get used to having anything. The one concession is that Mattie be allowed to participate in occasional activities in town so she will not feel too isolated on the farm. She has been with them a year, living in the same house, but the moments Ethan most treasures are when he walks her home. When she arrived, she brought hope and light to his dark world. She is eager to learn, and he is eager to show her things and teach her things. When he explains about the constellations, for example, he is proud that he can teach her and is thrilled by her wonder and pleasure.
Zeena complains about Mattie’s ineptitude at housework. It is true that the young girl is not a good cook; neither is she particularly good at other common household chores. Ethan helps her around the house when he can. On Saturday nights he even scrubs the kitchen floor after the women are in bed. One day Zeena catches him churning butter, gives him an odd look, and silently turns away from him. Other indications of Zeena’s “disfavor” include a sly conversation regarding Mattie’s marriage plans with Dennis Eady (which do not exist) and taunting him about shaving every day, which he did not do until Mattie’s arrival. Ethan is stunned by these comments because he had no idea his wife noticed anything of his feelings. Zeena has a way of storing up her observations and then making cutting...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
The dancers leave the church and prepare to walk or get into their sleighs for the journey home. When someone asks Mattie if she is riding home, Ethan anxiously awaits her reply. She laughs and says of course she will be walking; Ethan steps further back into the shadows, suddenly reticent in Mattie’s presence. She looks around expectantly, but still Ethan does not make his presence known to her. Dennis Eady begins some flirtatious banter with Mattie and then offers her a ride home in his father’s sleigh. She appears to hesitate a bit, though she is no longer looking around her expectantly. Eady brings the sleigh near and throws back the rug for her, but Mattie darts off and tells him to have a nice ride home. He follows her, gets out, and tries to coax her into the sleigh, but she is not interested and will not go. Eady rides off alone and Ethan finally makes his presence known, startling Mattie with his proximity.
Mattie had assumed Ethan could not come because Zeena had not been feeling well that day, and she was prepared to walk home alone. Ethan draws her arm through his (which Dennis Eady had tried unsuccessfully to do) and imagines a slight pressure in the gesture. He wants to prolong these moments alone with Mattie, but they begin their walk home. She pauses near a coasting hill and tells Ethan people had been sledding there earlier. Ethan asks if she would like to go coasting with him sometime. Mattie eagerly says yes, even though a young couple (Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum) had nearly crashed into a giant elm at the bottom of the run. Mattie tells Ethan she is not easily frightened. Ethan assures her he could get her down the hill safely, and perhaps they would go coasting tomorrow.
Ethan is not free to express his feelings for her openly, so he is tortured by every word and tone Mattie speaks, trying to find meaning and discover feelings. Ethan starts a floundering conversation about Mattie and Dennis Eady, trying to determine if she has feelings for him as Zeena has suggested. Rather than comment on Eady, Mattie says she is dismayed that she does not seem to suit Zeena. Her housework is not good, she explains, but she will try to do better. When she fears that Ethan might want her to leave, too, Mattie begins to cry. Unable to express his feelings to her, Ethan keeps them walking in the moonlight until they reach the gate of his house. When he asks Mattie if she wants to leave, she asks her own question:...
(The entire section is 756 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The next morning, Ethan goes out early to work at the mill. He reflects on the night before and contrasts the sight of Mattie Silver in the glow of the lamplight with the sight of his wife—teeth in a glass near the bed, a flannel wrapped around her head, her raspy breathing, and her back turned ever toward him. He wonders why he did not kiss Mattie last night in the moonlight and thinks about the changes in Mattie since her arrival. Unlike most people in Starkfield, who grow more colorless and cold, Mattie has come alive and gained color since she has been here. Despite the austerity of her circumstances, she seems content. Perhaps, Ethan reflects, that is because of her family trials. Her father was involved in illegal financial activities that were discovered only after his lavish funeral. Her mother died of shame shortly thereafter, leaving a twenty-year-old Mattie at the mercy of her rather pitiless family. She had fifty dollars from the sale of her piano but was dependent on others for her livelihood. Her attempts to support herself as a stenographer, a bookkeeper, and a clerk caused her to become sick, and family members who had invested in her father’s illicit dealings and lost money soon wanted her out of their lives. Mattie came to her cousin Zenobia as a kind of “indentured servant,” her only skills being such impractical things as trimming a hat and playing the piano. Zeena was skeptical, but her doctor had told her she needed help around the house. Because she would cost them virtually nothing, Zeena allowed Mattie to come.
The first days were awful for both Mattie and Ethan because Zeena’s constant fault finding created tension in the small home. As Zeena began to concentrate on her own supposed ailments, though, things became more peaceful. As he reflects on the incident the night before, however, Ethan has an uneasy feeling that the peacefulness may be coming to an end. In an attempt to avoid finding out, Ethan plans to send their hired man, Jotham, back to the farm and drive the lumber into town himself later in the day.
When he finally returns to the house, he is surprised to find Zeena in her best clothes and traveling bonnet, her suitcase at her feet. Zeena tells him she plans to spend the night in Bettsbridge with her aunt to see the new doctor there in the morning. Ethan is aware that this, like so many similar trips before, is likely to result in more medicines and more cost to him. She...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
After Zeena leaves, Ethan bids Mattie a cheery farewell and heads off to cart the load of lumber to town. While the kitchen is not a particularly welcoming place, the thought of Zeena being out of it gives it a more cheerful aspect in Ethan’s mind. He envisions himself and Mattie as a comfortable married couple this evening, sitting by the fire in cozy companionship. His fears about Zeena causing trouble have evaporated, and Ethan anticipates the evening ahead.
He used to be a more sociable man, but each year back in Starkfield after his time away seemed to deepen his solitude and silence. Working the farm after his father’s death has been difficult and leaves him little time or energy for nonessential things. Once his mother began losing touch with reality, the silence deepened. Only when his cousin Zenobia came to help nurse his mother did Ethan feel the awakening of a “slumbering spark of sociability.” With the practical and efficient Zeena to manage the house and his mother, Ethan had a weight lifted from his shoulders.
After his mother died and Zeena was preparing to leave, Ethan felt a desperate need not to be left alone and asked her to stay. Upon reflection, if it had not been winter when his mother died, Ethan is sure he would not have been so weak. Ethan had always wanted to live in a city and be an engineer, so now that he was free to leave that was his dream. What he discovered during the time he was trying unsuccessfully to sell the farm was that Zeena could not be moved. She could only be content in a town small enough for her to despise; she could not bear to be in a place that might despise her. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena became chronically sickly; it was then Ethan realized her nursing skills came from her own experience. He often wondered if his wife was turning queer like his mother, for she had a furtiveness about her that Ethan found disconcerting.
As he takes the lumber to town, his fears about Zeena subside; his only worry now is the matter of getting the money he claimed he would get. When he arrives at Andrew Hale’s place, he is greeted warmly. Ethan does eventually ask, rather shamefacedly, for an advance of fifty dollars, though it is against their usual arrangement of payment every three months. If he had pleaded some kind of urgency, perhaps he would have gotten the funds; however, Ethan has no desire for Hale or anyone else in town to think he is struggling...
(The entire section is 933 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
After dinner, Ethan goes to care for the animals for the night while Mattie tidies the kitchen. When he returns, Ethan sees the picture he envisioned, Mattie sitting with her sewing by the light of a lamp. It is, to him, perfect contentment. He takes off his boots, picks up his pipe, and becomes part of the domestic scene. When he realizes he is unable to see Mattie from his position, he asks her to come sit nearer to him. Mattie does so, seating herself in Zeena’s nearby rocking chair. Looking at her there gives Ethan a start because he sees Zeena’s face superimposed over the younger woman’s face. Mattie, too, feels ill at ease and moves back to the light of the lamp. Ethan gets up to stoke the fire and uses the opportunity to move his chair so he can watch Mattie. He reminds her they were to have gone coasting tonight. Ethan insists that it is a dangerous ride and Mattie insists she would not be afraid, but both are content to stay where they are.
Ethan leans over, touches the end of her needlework, and asks her to guess who he saw getting kissed this afternoon. Mattie blushes and guesses correctly, and the conversation dies. Her blush sets up a “flaming guard” around her. They are in a setting too intimate for such things, which might easily have been spoken about in the open air of a moonlight walk. Ethan supposes the young lovers will get married soon and that Mattie will probably be next. Mattie has no such thoughts and wonders what prompts him to mention it. He tells her he is trying to prepare himself, but Mattie soon asks if Zeena is preparing to get rid of her. Mattie expresses her nervousness around Zeena lately but dismisses it when Ethan says he has heard nothing of the kind from his wife. Ethan moves his hand further up the end of Mattie’s needlework, and a current seems to flow between them.
Suddenly the cat darts from Zeena’s chair to chase a mouse, leaving the empty chair rocking. Ethan realizes Zeena will be back in that chair before long, and he tightly clenches the end of the needlework then bends to kiss it. As he does, the fabric moves and Mattie is gathering up her work for the evening. It is eleven o’clock, and they proceed to do the small tasks that must be done before bed. Mattie goes up the stairs, pauses to tell Ethan goodnight, and then closes her bedroom door behind her. Ethan realizes he had not even touched her hand that evening.
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
At breakfast the next morning, Ethan acts proprietary and does not even offer to help Mattie with the dishes. He and Jotham make their plan for this rather muddy day; Jotham will be sent to retrieve Zeena while Ethan continues working on the farm. He goes back to the house one more time. He wants to say that these will be their last moments alone together; instead, he simply tells Mattie he will probably be home for dinner. One of his errands in town is to buy glue, but the miry roads cause one of his horses to get cut and he is running short of time. When he finally makes it to town, the regular clerks are not at Eady’s store and Ethan is forced to ask Dennis Eady for help. The inexperienced Dennis is unable to find glue anywhere, so Ethan goes to Ms. Homan’s store. She is slow and full of questions, but she finally locates a single bottle of glue. Ethan grabs it and hurries home. The weather has gotten worse, and Ethan is afraid Jotham and Zeena may overtake him on the road.
The barn is empty when he arrives, much to Ethan’s relief, and he hastily settles the animals so he can get to the house and glue the pickle dish. As he walks in, Mattie grabs his sleeve and tells him in a dramatic whisper Zeena is home. Jotham dropped her off and then headed straight to his own home with some packages. When Ethan asks how Zeena is, Mattie tells him she does not know; she came in and went straight to her room without saying a word. Ethan tells her he will mend the dish tonight when she is asleep. Just then, Jotham returns with the sleigh.
After trips such as this, Zeena is often miserable to be around, so Ethan invites Jotham to join them as a “neutralising presence.” But Jotham, never one to turn down a free meal, declines the offer—twice. Zeena generally attacks the first person she sees when things are not going well for her, so Ethan assumes Jotham was the recipient of her wrath earlier and has no interest in repeating the experience. When Ethan heads back into the house, the scene is much the same as it was the evening before except there is now an air of dread in the room.
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
After hanging up his wet garments, Ethan calls upstairs to Zeena; when she does not answer, he makes his way to their bedroom. He finds her sitting rigidly by the window, still in her traveling clothes. This is the pattern after such a trip, and Ethan is not surprised when she says she does not think she can eat any dinner. This time, however, after making this statement she does not immediately make her way to the table. “I’m a great deal sicker than you think,” she tells her husband. With a great sigh, she announces she has “complications”—a dire pronouncement that leaves Ethan with mixed feelings. He makes a tactical error by questioning the wisdom of this new doctor, to which Zeena reacts sharply. She tells Ethan everyone can see she is getting worse and that everyone she knows who has seen this doctor is now well. With as much sympathy as he can muster, Ethan tells her he is glad she might feel better soon and that she must do whatever the doctor tells her to do. In a sly manner, Zeena tells him she intends to do just that. Ethan’s worst fear is the potential expense, and he asks what the doctor recommended she do. Her answer is that she must have a hired girl so she does not have to do even one thing around the house. Ethan is stunned into silence, and she continues with the news that her aunt has found one for her—and she promised an extra dollar to ensure the girl’s speedy arrival by noon tomorrow.
Ethan is angry that she made such plans without consulting him and is dismayed at the prospect of this new, continued drain on his scant resources. The argument escalates, and Zeena finally claims she lost her health while nursing his mother. Ethan is outraged at the thought and they continue the argument “like serpents shooting venom.” Eventually Ethan lights a candle and they speak more calmly; he explains they simply do not have the money for a hired girl. Zeena responds that she can no longer keep slaving away and he might as well send her to the poorhouse—where other Fromes have been before now, she supposes. Ethan ignores the thrust and tells her there is just no money. Quietly, Zeena asks about the fifty dollars he got from Andrew Hale. After Ethan stammers something about a misunderstanding, Zeena’s tone changes and he grows momentarily hopeful. Ethan assures her that he and Mattie will do more, but Zeena interrupts him to casually state that at least they will not have the expense of keeping Mattie,...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
After Zeena walks out of the room, Mattie begins to do the dishes and Ethan performs his usual night duties outside. When he returns, the kitchen is empty and Ethan goes to his small study behind the parlor. On a trip to the kitchen for his pipe and tobacco, Ethan finds a scrap of paper on which Mattie has written, “Don’t trouble, Ethan.” Back in his study, Ethan begins to fume and form thoughts of rebellion. He reflects that Zeena has become
a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her.
His thoughts turn to a couple he knows, a man who left his wife and started a new life with a woman he loved. How easy it would be to just walk away with Mattie and leave Zeena nothing but a letter. He even starts writing the letter, but soon the reality of his situation settles over him like a dark, heavy mantle. The farm and the mill are heavily mortgaged, and though he might make a go of it on his own, Ethan has to ensure he can make a living for both Mattie and himself. And Zeena would have nothing; she would have to go back to her family. He scans the newspaper for ticket prices to the West and discovers he cannot even afford the trip. In despair, he realizes he is “a prisoner for life.”
He wakes up in the morning to the reality that this is his last day with Mattie. She walks up behind him and says she did not hear him come to bed last night. He feels a rush of tenderness for her and begins to start the fire in the kitchen stove. Suddenly things do not seem so dire to Ethan, and he tells Mattie to “take no notice” of Zeena when she comes downstairs. Ethan and Jotham begin to work, and Ethan dismisses all plans to take Mattie or her trunks to the train station. When they enter the kitchen, Zeena is discussing a missing towel and some damage to a piece of furniture for which she blames Mattie. Mattie’s leaving appears unstoppable.
Ethan heads to town in hopes of getting money from Andrew Hale after explaining his desperate need. Hale is home with lumbago, but his wife treats Ethan kindly. She seems to understand Ethan’s plight and says, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome.” This expression of sympathy deters him from his plan; he cannot take money from them under false pretenses. Suddenly he sees the tragic reality of his life, and he heads slowly back to the farm.
(The entire section is 441 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
When he arrives home, Zeena is reading a medical book and Mattie is upstairs sitting on her trunk in her bare room and crying. She stops when she sees Ethan and explains she thought he had left without saying good-bye. They share a short-lived moment of raw emotion and then work Mattie’s trunk around the corner and down the stairs. The trunk is sent to the station on another sleigh, and they sit down to one last meal. Clearly Zeena wants Jotham to take Mattie to the station, but Ethan insists. Zeena claims he must fix the furnace in the new girl’s room; Ethan declares that if it was good enough for Mattie it will certainly be good enough for the new girl. He leaves to go get the sleigh ready for this last ride.
When he returns he finds Mattie in his study. Zeena has gone to her room and does not intend to come back down to say good-bye. The two leave gleefully with time for a lovely ride before the train departs. Ethan takes them on a drive past places filled with memories of their time together, including a church picnic during which Mattie made Ethan feel more alive than he had ever felt before. Mattie tells him they must leave, but Ethan will not be rushed and finally asks her what she will do once she leaves. She says she may try to get a job in a store, but Ethan knows she is not strong enough for such work, despite her protests that she is stronger now than when she came. In dismay, Ethan wishes he could go with her. Mattie understands; she read the letter he started to write to Zeena. They talk tearfully about the future, and Ethan says she will probably get married. Mattie says she would rather be dead, and Ethan says he almost would prefer that. Soon they regain their senses and continue their drive.
They stop near the coasting hill, and they see and hear delighted children sledding. Ethan convinces Mattie to go for a ride with him. Though the light is growing dim, Ethan takes his place behind Mattie on a borrowed sled and steers them confidently down the hill. It is an exhilarating experience for both of them, and Ethan boasts again that he has always been able to “measure distances to a hair’s-breadth—always could.” As they pause in the sheltered spot in which Ethan caught Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing, they share a last desperate moment together. Their situation is hopeless. Then Mattie has an idea. She wants them to sled down the hill again, only this time so “we’ll never come up any more.”...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Ethan is about to open the door to his home for the engineer on this treacherous snowy night. Inside, there is a “querulous drone” that stops the moment the door opens. The narrator sees two women but cannot tell from which of them the sound originated. One of the women gets up from her chair when the men enter, not in greeting but in preparation for the evening meal. This woman is angular and sallow, and her clothes hang from her bony frame. The other woman has a slighter build and is sitting hunched near the stove. She turns her head when the men enter, though her body does not move at all. Her hair is gray and she, too, appears “bloodless and shriveled.”
The kitchen is as destitute as the rest of the farm is. It is meager and cold, and Ethan apologizes that the fire has gone out. The woman in the chair complains that Zeena fell asleep and let the fire go out. The engineer recognizes the whine and knows it was she whose voice he heard from behind the door. The older woman is just bringing a dish to the table, and Ethan takes the opportunity to introduce the engineer to the women. His wife, Zenobia, is the woman preparing their supper; the other, the one who is paralyzed, is Mattie Silver.
The next day, after the narrator arrives at Mrs. Ned Hale’s boarding house, he is greeted with alacrity. She and her mother had both been worried about him and are shocked to hear he had spent the night at the Fromes’. They are curious about his impressions of the Fromes, but he simply tells them he slept in a makeshift bed in a small study off the parlor. Ruth believes no one has visited the Fromes in the last twenty years, even old friends, except for the doctor and herself. She goes twice a year but tries to visit at a time when she knows Ethan is not there. It is depressing enough, she says, to see the two women; to see the despair on Ethan’s face is just too much for her to bear, especially because she can remember the time before Ethan’s mother died and the trouble began.
The narrator senses Ruth would like to talk with someone else who has seen what she sees, and he waits patiently for her to tell him more of the story. Ruth continues. They brought Mattie to Ruth’s house right after the accident because they were friends. She was given sedatives to help her sleep, but when she woke up in the morning she looked right at Ruth and said—but Ruth could not bring herself to tell that part of the story....
(The entire section is 719 words.)