Ethan Frome Questions and Answers
by Edith Wharton

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What images dominate the quarrel between Ethan and Zenobia about Mattie's dismissal? Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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After Zeena returns earlier than anticipated from her distant visit to the doctor in Bettsbridge, Ethan misses his opportunity to repair the broken pickle dish. Still, he hopes to detain Jotham who drove Zeena because he can buffer some of Zeena's ill-temper, but Jothan uncharacteristically refuses the free dinner that Ethan offers him.  After Ethan hangs up his wet garments, he calls her name and ascends the stairs; when he asks her to come to supper, she refuses, telling him, "I'm a great deal sicker than you think."

Zeena inflorms Ethan that she has "complications" and the doctor has said that she needs a hired girl; in fact, one will be over tomorrow. Angry and dismayed at this announcement, Ethan argues that he cannot afford another servant.  But, Zeena spitefully blames him for her loss of health:

"Yes, and my folks all told me at the time you couldn't do no less than marry me after--" 

At this remark, Ethan shouts her name. It is as this point that the beauty of Edith Wharton's language exhibits itself:

Through the obscurity which hid their faces their thoughts seemed to dart at each other like serpents shooting venom.  Ethan was seized with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it.  It was as senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the darkness.

....There was a moment's pause in the struggle, as though the combatants were testing their weapons.

The image of serpents conjures both evil and deadliness along with the sharp and biting, venomous words that are exchanged between wife and husband.  Additionally, the image of two combatants, or fighters, wielding savagely swords or other sharp, deadly weapons is evident.  Obviously, an argument of such import and magnitude is one that does irreparable harm.

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