Chapter 8 Summary
After Zeena walks out of the room, Mattie begins to do the dishes and Ethan performs his usual night duties outside. When he returns, the kitchen is empty and Ethan goes to his small study behind the parlor. On a trip to the kitchen for his pipe and tobacco, Ethan finds a scrap of paper on which Mattie has written, “Don’t trouble, Ethan.” Back in his study, Ethan begins to fume and form thoughts of rebellion. He reflects that Zeena has become
a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her.
His thoughts turn to a couple he knows, a man who left his wife and started a new life with a woman he loved. How easy it would be to just walk away with Mattie and leave Zeena nothing but a letter. He even starts writing the letter, but soon the reality of his situation settles over him like a dark, heavy mantle. The farm and the mill are heavily mortgaged, and though he might make a go of it on his own, Ethan has to ensure he can make a living for both Mattie and himself. And Zeena would have nothing; she would have to go back to her family. He scans the newspaper for ticket prices to the West and discovers he cannot even afford the trip. In despair, he realizes he is “a prisoner for life.”
He wakes up in the morning to the reality that this is his last day with Mattie. She walks up behind him and says she did not hear him come to bed last night. He feels a rush of tenderness for her and begins to start the fire in the kitchen stove. Suddenly things do not seem so dire to Ethan, and he tells Mattie to “take no notice” of Zeena when she comes downstairs. Ethan and Jotham begin to work, and Ethan dismisses all plans to take Mattie or her trunks to the train station. When they enter the kitchen, Zeena is discussing a missing towel and some damage to a piece of furniture for which she blames Mattie. Mattie’s leaving appears unstoppable.
Ethan heads to town in hopes of getting money from Andrew Hale after explaining his desperate need. Hale is home with lumbago, but his wife treats Ethan kindly. She seems to understand Ethan’s plight and says, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome.” This expression of sympathy deters him from his plan; he cannot take money from them under false pretenses. Suddenly he sees the tragic reality of his life, and he heads slowly back to the farm.