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 remarks weeks later at unexpected moments. This causes Ethan to feel continually uncomfortable in his wife’s presence.
As he looks again at the scene in the church, Ethan believes he sees Mattie being flirtatious with Dennis Eady.