In the book Ethan Frome, chapter 6, how does Zeena's early return alter the mood of the house??

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We learn quickly that, upon Zeena's return in chapter 6, the first person to catch her ongoing wrath is poor Jotham Powell. The hired man, who was asked to pick up Zeena at the flats, had a bad enough experience on the way to the Fromes to render him unable to accept a free meal on the house. 

We are never told, as readers, what exactly happens on the way back to her house, but the demeanor that Ethan notes in Jotham was strong enough to scare him and suggest worse things to come.

The other thing we learn is that Zeena goes straight to her room, refuses to eat, and says nothing else to Mattie. Eager to find the glue to put back the pickle dish that was broken the night before, while Zeena was gone, Ethan was already anxious of what would happen now that she is back. 

In order to accentuate the contrasting atmosphere before and after Zeena's presence in the house, Wharton describes the same scene featuring the table, the cat, and the fire. The comforting scenery happens twice in a row, in the same house. The only difference? Zeena was inside the house the second time around.

When he re-entered the kitchen the lamp lit up the same scene of shining comfort as on the previous evening. The table had been as carefully laid, a clear fire glowed in the stove, the cat dozed in its warmth, and Mattie came forward carrying a plate of doughnuts.

Zeena is a disruptive presence in the house. She causes unwanted stress, suffocates everyone with her hypochondria, and talks of nothing but illnesses when she does decide to talk. Yet, she is by no means the antagonist of the story. She, too, is (in part) a victim of circumstances. It is in this part of the novel when she appears to have realized, for the first time ever, that the only reason Ethan married her was as a "thank you" for caring for Ethan's mother. Moreover, she attributes her lack of health for giving it all up to care for Mrs. Frome, which is "iffy", at best: No evidence from the narrative suggests that she lost anything in the process.

Lastly, she realizes her lack of value is more accentuated with Mattie's presence in the house. All of these are the contributing factors that make her presence oppressive, depressing, and annoying in the eyes of Ethan and everyone else.