While hauling lumber early the next morning, Ethan reflects on the events of the previous night and circumstances that brought Mattie to Starkfield. Ethan went to bed, blowing out the candle before he crawled in so as to avoid looking at his wife. Under the door, he could see just a flicker of the light from Mattie's candle, all the way on the other side of the landing. He watched the light until it went out. He wished that he had kissed Mattie while they had been out on their walk.
Mattie's father was Zeena's cousin. He had left the hills and traveled to Connecticut, but he died too young to make his fortune. His wife died soon after, leaving Mattie to fend for herself. She had no real skills, and the difficulties of working for a living disagreed with her health. When Zeena's doctor recommended that Zeena find a housekeeper, the family arranged to have Mattie stay at the Frome farm. Although life there has been harder than her old life in Conneticut, Mattie has been cheerful and happy. However, she has little talent for housekeeping, and her ineffectiveness vexes Zeena.
When he finishes hauling the lumber, Ethan thinks about the tension in his house. He worries that trouble will come up between Mattie and Zeena, so he decides to return home rather than deliver the lumber. He arrives home to find his wife dressed for travel: she has decided to go to Bettsbridge to see a new doctor. She will spend the night with her aunt; for the first time since Mattie arrived, Mattie and Ethan are going to be in the house overnight without Zeena. Ethan, anxious to avoid a long ride with Zeena, decides to have Jotham Powell, the hired man, use the sorrel to drive Zeena to the station. Ethan will use the other horses to haul lumber.
Ethan's passion for Mattie has become more difficult to control. Although a few days ago the thought of kissing Mattie would never have occurred to him, now the desire to do so is becoming irresistible. He once contented himself with fantasies of simply being allowed to stay near her; now, he is thinking about having her physically. Zeena is only thirty-five years old, but she is prematurely an old woman. The physical descriptions of her make clear that she cannot be an object of erotic desire. Ethan is twenty-eight, and Zeena arouses no passion in him.
The Frome's poverty is clear in this chapter. Mattie is destitute after the death of her parents, and she is forced to take refuge with the already-struggling Fromes. She has nowhere else to go. But Ethan's resources are stretched to the limit: when he sees Zeena in her bonnet, he cannot help but recall how much the bonnet cost. And although he is thrilled by the prospect of being alone in the house with Mattie, he fears the expensive new medicines that Zeena might buy. The fact that these three people are together in the house is not a matter of choice. Ethan was forced to return to the farm because of poverty: after his father, someone had to take care of his mother, and they lacked the funds to hire help or support Ethan's studies. Mattie is destitute, and needs the shelter and food provided by the Fromes' farm. And because of poverty, fantasies of leaving Zeena are an impossible. It would be heartless to leave Zeena, who is ailing and has no way to provide for herself. All three characters are trapped. They are bound by poverty into the same house, and the combination of the Fromes' loveless marriage and Ethan's growing passion for Mattie makes for a very dangerous situation.
Driving the lumber to Andrew Hale's, Ethan looks forward to his evening with Mattie. He whistles and sings as he rides along; there resides in him a spark of life that Starkfield has not yet extinguished. It was even stronger when he was younger. He was known in Worcester as taciturn, but even when he is quiet he loves the company of others. After he returned to the farm to care for his mother, his mother slowly became more and more eccentric. By the end, she rarely talked at all. His cousin, Zeena Pierce, came to help care for her. Zeena seemed lively at first, providing the company and conversation that Ethan craved. She was an efficient housekeeper, and her help restored some of the freedom Ethan had once known. When his mother died, he could not bear the thought of being alone again, and he asked Zeena to stay with him as his wife. At first, they had plans to sell the farm and move to the city. But financial troubles and a scarcity of buyers impeded them, and Zeena became more and more sickly and obsessed with her own illnesses. Her hypochondria cut off the possibility of leaving Starkfield. After a year, Zeena became as quiet as Ethan's mother had been.
To explain why he couldn't drive Zeena to the station today, Ethan lied and said he needed to deliver the lumber in person to get a cash advance. But now he regrets the lie: thinking they have cash handy, Zeena will be more extravagant in buying her medicines. Uncharacteristically, Ethan resolves to swallow some of his pride and ask Andrew Hale for cash up front instead of the normal quarterly payment. But once he asks Hale, Ethan feels shame. Hale is not willing to give the cash, although he refuses with enough geniality, and Ethan is too proud to say he needs the money.
While in town, Ethan runs some errands. He runs into Denis Eady briefly, and worries that the young man might be headed toward the Frome farm. Ethan also stumbles onto Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing; he realizes with sadness that these two need not hide their passion, while he has been torturing himself over a simple kiss with Mattie. As he rides back to the farm, he takes note of a tombstone that has always interested him because the man in the grave shares his name: "SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE, WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE FOR FIFTY YEARS."
When Ethan gets to the door he finds it locked, and it takes a moment for Mattie to answer. The wait reminds him so much of the previous night that he half-expects to see Zeena there. But it is Mattie, her hair laced with a red ribbon. Ethan is overjoyed just being with her. They sit down for dinner, but conversation proves difficult. Any mention of Zeena's name leads to awkwardness, and Ethan pretends to be famished so he can eat rather than talk. The cat knocks over the pickle-dish, shattering it, and Mattie is thrown into a panic: it is a fine red dish, one of Zeena's wedding gifts. It came all the way from Philadelphia and is irreplaceable here in Starkfield. Mattie begins to cry, because Zeena will want to know why the dish was being used in the first place. Ethan takes charge of the situation, piecing the dish together and putting it back on the high shelf where it is kept. He'll glue it tomorrow, and it might take months for Zeena to realize what happened. Mattie does not even know what he has done, but she trusts him enough not to ask him about it. Ethan is thrilled that his assurance subdues her; it makes him feel strong and in control.
The first half of the chapter is spent establishing that Starkfield in general and the Fromes' farm in particular stamps the life out of any who live there. We are told that a spark of life resides in Ethan still, but we also remember the older, grim Ethan of the opening. The life left in Ethan at twenty-one will not last much longer. The themes of isolation and lost potential are central to the story of Ethan's youth. He lost his chance to pursue further studies, and he returned home to care for his mother as she lost her mind and became silent.
The effect of environment is powerful, as the Frome farm wears down anyone who spends too much time there: Zeena, initially lively, became increasingly lost to hypochondria and bouts of silence. Starkfield winters exact a heavy price.
We see more determinism in the marriage: it came about not because of great passion, but because of loneliness. Significantly, Ethan's mother died in winter. Ethan wonders if he would have married Zeena if the death had happened in the spring; it was the thought of spending winter alone that made him need her. The chance timing of his mother's death becomes another factor over which Ethan had no control; it may have led to his disastrous marriage, a marriage that tied him to Starkfield for good.
The moment with Andrew Hale reveals Ethan's fierce pride. He swallows it enough to ask for a cash advance, but once he has made the request his face becomes red. And he cannot bring himself to explain his request to Andrew; when Andrew asks if Ethan has any special need for the money, Ethan cheerfully says that he doesn't.
Wharton uses a moment of happiness to show the painful passage of time in Starkfield. When Ethan stumbles on Ruth and Ned kissing, we remember that in twenty-four years time, Ruth will be an old widow living in the careworn remains of her father's mansion. Rarely do we see places or people for whom a pleasant fate waits. We know that Denis Eady will be very wealthy, but the young Denis is presented as so unlikable that his future prosperity is almost as depressing as the hard times waiting for Ruth.
Wharton foreshadows Mattie's future transformation into a second Zeena. Zeena, too, was lively when she came to the Frome farm. And when Ethan waits at the door, Mattie imitates Zeena's actions from the previous night. The parallel is so strong that Ethan wonders if Zeena is going to be there when the door opens. Although Mattie is lively now, it must be remembered that Zeena once had the power to make Ethan happy. Starkfield winters and the harshness of life at the Frome's farm can wear down anybody.
The old tombstone is another bit of ominous foreshadowing. As the tombstones mock Ethan with the reminder of other Fromes who never were able to leave Starkfield, this tombstone foretells the living Ethan's fate. The Ethan Frome of the tombstone lived with his wife, Endurance, for fifty years. The language is of compulsion and forbearance rather than a celebration of the couple's life together. The best that can be said of them is that they "dwelled together in peace," and the wife's name is a symbol and a bit of foreshadowing. For the living Ethan, love will not be the mark of his life with Mattie or Zeena. Endurance will be the virtue that Ethan will be forced to cultivate, and he will have long decades to do it.
It becomes very clear at dinner that Mattie's feelings for Ethan are in line with his feelings for her. She uses the forbidden red dish and prepares Ethan's favorite foods: clearly, she wanted to make their dinner together special. They are making an attempt at a normal dinner together, as a husband and wife would have, but their situation does not allow it. Zeena's absence is nearly as oppressive as Zeena's presence, and conversation becomes impossible. Red is being used as a symbol of passion and transgression. In Chapters 1 and 2, Mattie is wearing a cherry scarf. Here, she wears a red ribbon in her hair and serves Ethan on a rid dish. But passion and transgression lead to trouble: the red dish is smashed, and Mattie panics about having to explain the loss to Zeena. As much as they would like to pretend otherwise, it is impossible for Mattie and Ethan to have a dinner together like a married couple. Their meal deteriorates into awkward conversation, silences, and broken dishes that cannot be replaced.
Ethan and Mattie settle down for a quiet night by the fire, Ethan with his pipe and Mattie with some sewing. Ethan can't see Mattie from his position by the fire, so he invites her to sit in Zeena's rocking chair. When she sits there, Ethan thinks for a moment that he sees Zeena's face in place of Mattie's. Mattie also seems uncomfortable with the spot, and she soon returns to her place at the table, pleading that the firelight is not bright enough for needlework. At first, the conversation seems to go easily. They talk about the goings-on in town, and they discuss the possibility of sledding ("coasting") some night. Ethan pulls his chair up to Mattie's table.
The conversation becomes awkward; Ethan brings up Ned and Ruth in hopes that talk of the young couple will somehow open up a chance for a soft touch. It doesn't work; the conversation turns to Mattie leaving someday, and Mattie worries that Zeena is displeased with her. She worries that Zeena will force her to leave. Ethan expresses his dismay at the idea of Mattie's departure, and his earnestness makes Mattie blush.
The cat, which has been sitting in Zeena's chair, jumps down to chase a mouse. The leap sets Zeena's chair rocking, reminding Ethan that Zeena will be sitting there by tomorrow evening. At the table, he touches the end of the cloth that Mattie is sewing. He holds it firmly in his hand, and then it brings it to his lips for a gentle kiss. Mattie quickly rolls up her work. They both do the last nightly chores and go to bed, each in their separate bedrooms. Ethan reflects that he never once touched her.
Passion is blocked by guilt and the power of the environment. The room stifles any romantic possibility: "Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable" (54). Ethan indulges 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.