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Zeena's trip allows Ethan to indulge in the fantasy that he and Mattie live as man and wife. For a brief moment, their simple conversation together sustains his fantasy; it as if they had the leisure to speak so easily every night. But while Ethan fantasizes that this room is his and Mattie's, the room begins to remind him that it belongs to Ethan and Zeena. Domestic order and conformity, symbolized by the room, prove too strong for Ethan's passionate impulses.
Ethan's guilt makes him see Zeena's presence everywhere. When Mattie sits down in Zeena's chair, Ethan believes that Mattie has Zeena's face. The brief illusion is enough to make him very uneasy, and Mattie's discomfort with taking her cousin's place forces her back to the table. The cat leaping down from the rocking chair sets the chair into motion, immediately reminding Ethan of Zeena's impending return. The cat-and-mouse chase also parallels the game Ethan is playing. He is trying to learn Mattie's feelings, but he is too restrained to be direct; he has to bait her, bring up conversation topics that might make her reveal herself. The cat chasing the mouse also makes for a somewhat sinister atmosphere. The mouse hunt bridges the gap between the domestic space and the world of hunter and prey, reminding us that there is no real division between humans and the world of Darwin.
The smallest hint of passion is immediately strangled. Ethan's move is small, but unmistakable. In kissing the cloth that Mattie is sewing, he crosses the line. Mattie rolls up her things and gets ready for bed. She does not scold him, and when he bids her good night she answers him kindly. But she is too scared by even this small gesture of affection; adultery is too frightening a step to take, especially because Mattie will have nowhere to go if forced to leave the Frome farm. Society's strictures and the burden of Mattie's poverty make transgression unthinkable.