Ethan Frome Summary and Analysis
Jotham Powell, the hired man, arrives early in the morning to help with the last of the lumber. All through breakfast, Ethan is inexplicably happy. Although nothing has changed, he feels like he has tasted what life would be like with Mattie. He plans to get the work done early enough so that he can buy some glue and fix the dish before Zeena arrives.
But the work is hard going. Sleet makes the roads treacherous, and the logs are so slick that loading them takes much longer than usual. Ethan is unable to set out for town until late. He hopes to make it back before Jotham retrieves Zeena from the station, but in town he has trouble finding the glue.
When his sleigh pulls back into the barn, Ethan sees that the sorrel isn't there and assumes that Zeena hasn't gotten home yet. He bursts into the kitchen, announcing proudly to Mattie that there is still time to fix the dish. She hushes him, whispering that Zeena has arrived. The sorrel isn't in the barn because Jotham Powell borrowed it to bring some supplies back to his house. Zeena has gone straight up to her bedroom, and has not emerged.
When Jotham returns with the horse, Ethan invites him in for dinner. Jotham refuses, which makes Ethan curious: Jotham never turns down a meal. Zeena must be in a foul mood because of something that happened on her trip. Jotham leaves, and Ethan goes back inside the kitchen to find it ready for supper.
Chapter 6 continues with the theme of the environment's power over men. Nature makes Ethan's plans impossible; the sleet makes work arduous and slow, and two strong men fumble with the logs. The wet roads slow down his delivery, and chance circumstances make it difficult to find the glue. Ethan cannot make it back in time, but through no fault of his own. Throughout the novel, humans are unable to carry out their plans, great or small. Some chance event or natural occurrence blocks the human will at every turn. From Ethan's desire to leave town to the attempt to buy glue to the doomed passion between Ethan and Mattie, the novel is full of frustrated desires and unfulfilled plans.
Ethan goes up to ask Zeena down to supper. Zeena tells him, ominously, that she's sicker than he realizes. She has "complications." Ethan is torn between hoping for her death and feeling pity for her, but his compassion is stronger than his selfishness. The conversation is tense, full of blunders; Zeena is picky and irritable. She tells him that the doctor thinks she should rest for months, without doing any work whatsoever. The doctor has recommended a hired girl, and Zeena has already contracted one to come. Ethan becomes angry; he simply doesn't have the money for it.
Zeena lashes back, saying that she became ill tending Ethan's own mother. The fight is open, aggressive; it is the only time in their marriage that Zeena and Ethan have shown so much open anger. They bicker over costs, and Zeena brings up the promised money for the lumber delivery. Ethan is caught in his lie, and he lacks the skill to evade it. Zeena also points out that their expenses will be less now that Mattie will be leaving. Ethan is horrified; he had not even considered that Mattie would be sent away. Mattie comes up to call them down for dinner, but Zeena responds that she won't be having dinner; clueless, Mattie goes back downstairs. Ethan tries to persuade Zeena to let Mattie stay, but Zeena is adamant.
Ethan goes down to eat, but he has no appetite. Mattie keeps asking what's wrong. Instead of answering, Ethan pulls her to him and kisses her. She returns the kiss, but after a moment withdraws. Ethan blurts out clumsily, "You can't go, Matt! I'll never let you!" (66). He tells her about the doctor's orders and Zeena's decision, and both of them know that Zeena never changes her mind. Matt faces an uncertain future.
Zeena comes downstairs, having decided to eat dinner after all. She speaks in her flat whine, eating and telling them stories about the intestinal problems of her friends and relatives in Bettsbridge. After dinner, she has heartburn and goes to get some special stomach powders; she returns furious, tears in her eyes, the broken bits of the pickle-dish in her hands. Ethan tries to blame it on the cat, but Mattie admits that she brought down the pickle-dish to try and make the table look pretty. Zeena has never used it, even when company has come over, and she is mad with grief and rage: "You're a bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always known it. It's the way your father begun, and I was warned of it when I took you,k and I tried to keep my things where you couldn't get at 'em and now you've took from me the one I cared for most of all" ( 70). She leaves the room with the pickle-dish's shattered remains, acting as if she "carried a dead body" (70).
Wharton is able to flesh out characters with a minimal number of strokes. Zeena, reclusive and withdrawn and therefore difficult for the reader to know, emerges from this chapter as a much fuller character. We see how she uses her illness as a weapon: Wharton writes with humor that although many people around town have health problems, "only the chosen had complications'" (61). In a small town where people's intestinal disorders rank as a favorite topic of conversation, being ill makes a person something of a celebrity; being truly ill makes one into a star. Zeena uses her sickliness as a weapon against Ethan. It's the safest (and most cowardly) way to control him. We also see that Zeena harbors resentment against him: she blames her current illness on her time tending to Ethan's mother. Whether the claim is true or not, and it probably is not, Zeena has decided to see her sickness as the result of some sacrifice she made on Ethan's behalf. Clinging to this belief allows Zeena to feel that Ethan is indebted to her; it also makes her resent him.
The argument between Ethan and Zeena is worth a close study, because every statement gives vital clues to the character's psychology and the workings of small town society. Zeena constantly refers to the opinions of friends and relatives as if they were taken from Scripture. Her arguments are usually supported by something someone in her family has said. The difficulty of rural life is an important theme, but here we move beyond the physical difficulties and see the psychological pitfalls of Starkfield living. The community is so small that it is stifling. The opinions of a few biased relatives stand as the voice of the whole world, and Ethan crumbles under Zeena's arguments.
We also learn of Zeena's insecurity. Some of her comments hint that she feels Ethan married her out of obligation. And here we see the tragedy of Zeena's character. She wants Ethan to feel obligated to her. She uses her illness as a weapon, and she was content to let him marry her out of a sense of loneliness and obligation. But after winning him as her husband in this way, she is tortured by the fact that Ethan married her out of obligation and loneliness rather than passion. She has won her victory in the way that she wanted to win it, but she must then live with the knowledge that her husband has been cornered into being with her.
She is not a generous woman by nature. Her attitude toward her pickle dish is indicative of her personality. Her most precious possession has been horded, hidden, never used even when beloved company has been over. Zeena was satisfied keeping the dish tucked away and never used, hidden from the world. Control of the dish was important to her: she makes sure that no one else touches it. The theme of poverty is here: Zeena's fussiness is a function of being poor, but it is only one possible reaction to being poor.
In a similar way, she has contented herself with possessing Ethan without doing anything to make him happy. She has used her sickliness to make him feel obligated to her, and has clung to him since. But her hypochondria and her whining have made Ethan miserable. There are definite parallels between Ethan and the red dish. When Zeena lashes out at Mattie, she seems to be speaking about Ethan as much as she is talking about the destroyed pickle-dish. She accuses Mattie of taking "the one I cared for most of all" (70), and the language is specifically chosen for its double meaning. "Took" rather than "destroyed," and "the one" rather than "the thing": every key word is chosen so that it can refer to both the dish and Ethan. Whether Zeena knows about Ethan and Mattie is never revealed: the pickle-dish speech can be read as an accusation or as a moment of dramatic irony.
Ethan has a tiny study on the first floor, done up in humble imitation of the study of a minister who was kind to him in Worcester. Since Mattie came and he moved the stove up to her room, it has been uninhabitable during the winter. But he goes there now, trying to figure out a way to take his life back. He carries with him a tiny note written by Mattie and left for him on the kitchen table: "Don't trouble, Ethan" (73).
He remembers meeting a couple who had faced a similar situation. The man had divorced his wife and fled west with his new girl, and everyone had prospered. The ex-wife sold the farm and started her own business, and the man and his new wife fared well out west. He begins a farewell letter to Zeena. But as he tries to plan a course of action for himself, he realizes that escape is impossible. Zeena will not be able to sell the farm for any considerable sum, and she has no means to survive in the mean time. And as for him and Mattie, they don't even have enough money to get out West. Ethan falls asleep in the study despite the cold.
The next morning, Jotham Powell is there. A coach is going to come later in the day to pick up Mattie's heavy trunk, and Jotham is going to take Mattie to the station when he goes to pick up the new hired girl.
Ethan heads toward town, humiliated by his own powerlessness. He suddenly considers a new plan: if he tells Andrew Hale that he needs money to hire a girl to help Zeena, he could use the cash advance to flee west with Mattie. He goes to the Hale mill, running into their sleigh on the weigh. Mrs. Hale is the rider, and she talks to Ethan sympathetically about Zeena's latest health problems. She admires Ethan for taking care of Zeena and before her, his mother. The sleigh takes off, and Ethan keeps on toward the Hales': if they feel sorry for him, they're sure to loan him the money. But then Ethan realizes that he is planning to use the compassion of the Hales' to get money dishonestly. He realizes the truth of his situation: Zeena cannot fend for herself, and Ethan's flight with Mattie would depend on deceiving the Hales. He turns and goes back to his own farm.
Ethan is completely boxed in, and Wharton's determinism becomes oppressive. He has no options: as he sits in his study planning an escape, he realizes that what worked for another man will not work for him. He simply does not have the resources. The reality of his situation continues to torment him. Ethan can't find an honorable way to save his happiness.
And he is, whether he likes it or not, an honorable man. He does not have it in him to abandon Zeena, or deceive the Hales. His choice to live honestly rather than pursue his passion for Mattie is admirable, but it should not be taken as evidence of human agency. Ethan's decency is part of what makes him so sympathetic, but in Wharton's universe goodness and morals limit options rather than multiply them. His decision to remain honest is one of the few choices he is allowed in the novel, and it lends his character tragic dignity. It is not a sign of man's power over his own life; rather, it is an example of a man behaving honorably within the constraints that life has given him.
Ethan Frome Essays and Related Content
- Ethan Frome: Major Themes
- Ethan Frome: Essays
- Ethan Frome: E-Text
- Ethan Frome: Questions
- Ethan Frome: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Edith Wharton: Biography
- Ethan Frome Summary
- About Ethan Frome
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Prelude and Chapters 1-2
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-8
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-10
- Related Links on Ethan Frome
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources