In Ethan Frome, is Ethan and Mattie's one night alone more intimate than it would have been had they become lovers during Zeena's absence?.

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The connection between Ethan and Mattie as it is presented in the novel surpasses the physical. They are drawn to each other as soul mates, finding in each other their own deepest emotions. When Mattie first expresses aloud what Ethan has always felt silently, he believes "that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul." The evening they spend together while Zeena is away emphasizes this bond between them; the scene as Wharton writes it creates an emotional intimacy that is more profound than a momentary sexual union, although the strong physical attraction between them is evident in their every gesture.

After Zeena has left, Ethan hurries through the day's work in the village so that he can return home to Mattie. He imagines their evening together:

For the first time they would be alone together indoors, and they would sit there, one on each side of the stove, like a married couple, he in his stocking feet and smoking his pipe, she laughing and talking in that funny way she had, which was always as new to him as if he had never heard her before.

It is significant that Ethan does not dream of his time alone with Mattie in sexual terms; instead it is the emotional intimacy of marriage that warms him. The "sweetness of the picture" in Ethan's mind sends his spirits soaring "with a rush."

The subsequent scene that Wharton creates between Ethan and Mattie is one of domestic sharing. They have supper together at a nicely laid table; a fire burns brightly in the stove with the cat drowsing before its warmth. Ethan is "suffocated with the sense of well being."

After supper, they sit together as Ethan had imagined, he smoking his pipe and Mattie doing her sewing. Temporary awkwardness soon disappears between them as they talk "easily and simply" of everyday subjects. This communication between Ethan and Mattie emphasizes the heart of their relationship:

The commonplace nature of what they said produced in Ethan an illusion of long-established intimacy which no outburst of emotion could have given . . . .

The love between Ethan and Mattie flows between them like an electric current as the night wears on, but it remains unexpressed, except in hands that reach toward each other but do not meet and in Ethan's lips kissing not Mattie but a bit of the cloth she sews. There is no physical contact between Ethan and Mattie during their evening together, but their emotional intimacy creates a spiritual union between them that is much deeper, even though, as Ethan later realizes "he had not even touched her hand."

 

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