Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome tells the story of an unhappily-married couple, Ethan and Zeena, and their live-in helper, Mattie, Zeena’s cousin. Mattie is a “big city” girl from Stamford, Connecticut, who has moved in with her cousin and her husband at their rural farm because of Zeena’s purportedly fragile health. Zeena is a dour woman and Mattie is a young, vivacious counterpart, and Ethan’s growing infatuation with Mattie, accurately perceived by Zeena, casts a pall over an already somber existence. All of this relayed in flashback by a narrator whose presence is felt only in the opening and closing sections of the novel. The characterizations are provided in the beginning of Ethan’s story, as related by the narrator, in Chapter One, following the narrator’s prologue. The story begins in the rural, fictional village of Starkfield, to which Ethan is hiking on his routine mission of escorting Mattie back to the farm following the evening’s revelry. Initially, Ethan resented this duty, but as he grew more attracted to Mattie, the more he relished their time alone together, and these long walks to and from the village church represented the highlight of his existence. Mattie’s joyful and innocent disposition contrasted markedly with that of Zeena, and Mattie’s presence in his life served to remind him of the happiness to which he was entitled.
It is in this context that, upon arriving back at the farm late in the evening, Ethan makes his discovery:
It was Zeena's habit, when they came back late from the village, to leave the key of the kitchen door under the mat. Ethan stood before the door, his head heavy with dreams, his arm still about Mattie. "Matt—" he began, not knowing what he meant to say.
She slipped out of his hold without speaking, and he stooped down and felt for the key.
"It's not there!" he said, straightening himself with a start.
They strained their eyes at each other through the icy darkness. Such a thing had never happened before.
Assuming that Zeena is asleep in their bedroom, Ethan is surprised to discover that his wife is, in fact, awake and expecting his and Mattie’s arrival. Grasping for a response to the unwelcome surprises, Ethan attempts to make light of the situation, but Zeena’s reply is filled with bitterness and foreboding:
Guess you forgot about us, Zeena," Ethan joked, stamping the snow from his boots.
"No. I just felt so mean I couldn't sleep."
Zeena didn’t forget to leave the key under the mat; she deliberately inconvenienced Ethan and Mattie out of resentfulness for their growing relationship and the threat it poses to her status.