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by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome Chapter 1 Summary
(From here until the Epilogue, the story is told in the third person, but limited to Ethan's perspective.) There is deep snow on the ground, and the sky is full of stars, and the lights seeping from the windows of the church basement are yellow. "Young Ethan Frome" is rapidly clicking along the street toward it. There is no breeze, and the cold air is hardly seems cold, as if there was no atmosphere. Ethan thinks, "It's like being in an exhausted receiver" (1.3). ("Exhausted receiver" is a term in physics used to describe something that once received air, but such air has been let out (or exhausted), creating a vacuum. Think of a bicycle pump.) Several years earlier Ethan had studied physics in college for about a year, and remembered things about it now and again. When his dad died, and everything started to go bad, Ethan had to stop school. Ethan arrives at the church and looks around. He sees Corbury Road. Kids love to sled down the hill nearby, though on this night there is no sledding, probably because all the youngsters are in the church basement at the dance. Now Ethan is peeping in the window of the church basement. The scene looks hot, especially in contrast to the still cold of the night. The dance is over. The music has stopped, and the attendees begin leaving. But wait…. A dark haired man hops and skips onto the dance floor, and claps his hands. The music begins anew. The man takes the hand of pretty, young lass. She and the man begin to dance while the band plays a " Virginia reel." Ethan's heart is pounding. He was trying to see the face of the dancing girl, and is irritated that she was dancing with the fiery Irish youth. Still, he watches her dance, noting that the Irish youth in question is Denis Eady, son of Michael, the grocer. This guy Denis looks like he thinks he owns the girl. Ethan doesn't like Denis, and can't imagine how the girl doesn't notice that he's a creep. The girl is Mattie Silver, Ethan's wife's cousin. Ethan came to pick her up whenever she came to town in the evenings. Both of Mattie's parents had died and she had nowhere to go, so she had come to live with the Fromes. She helps care for the house, and for Zeena (Ethan's wife). Since they didn't pay her (other than room and board) Zeena, thought that Mattie should get some entertainment and suggested she participate in the Starkfield social party scene. Ethan wasn't thrilled with this at first, as it meant that he would have to walk two more miles than usual to pick her up. But now, he wishes that Mattie would party every night. Mattie has lived with the Fromes for about a year, and Ethan's favorite thing is to be near her. His favorite way to be near her is walking, arms locked together, back from town on these nights. He'd liked Mattie right away, and hoped she would breath some life into the house. In fact, she is smart, and she and Ethan had excellent conversations together, mostly about nature. Ethan is into natural beauty, and Mattie shared this love. He could point out the constellations to her, and talk to her about the history of the earth. As he watches her dancing, he is remembering their times together, and now thinking that she must have been humoring all along. He thinks he's silly to think that a girl like Mattie would really be interested in him. Since Ethan is only light and happy when around Mattie, it strikes him that she can be light and happy without him. He notices also that the way she laughs with him is the same way she laughs when with this Denis Eady character. This bums him out, and brings his fears to mind. Though Zeena had never seemed jealous of Mattie, lately, she had been finding constant fault with the girl. Zeena had always had health issues, and Mattie probably wasn't the strongest and best helper in the word. She was a decent housekeeper, but one could tell her heart wasn't quite in it, and she was prone to dreaminess. Ethan thought that if she had a house of her own, her inner housewife would come emerge. For now, Ethan helps Mattie with the chores. Once Zeena caught him churning butter and gave him a funky look. Zeena has also been whining more lately, and hinting that Mattie might be leaving soon, perhaps to get married, and that she would need somebody new, though they couldn't afford it. Ethan remembers a conversation he just had with Zeena about Mattie. Ethan had assured Zeena that Mattie would never abandon her. Zeena had said she didn't want to get in between Mattie's happiness with Denis Eady. This had shocked Ethan, who was shaving at the moment. He insisted (casually) that no such romance was budding. Zeena wanted to continue the conversation, but Ethan claims he's late to pick up Mattie. This doesn't please Zeena, and she comments on a pattern of lateness she's noticed in Ethan, and a pattern of shaving every morning. This shocked him even more than the Denis Eady business. He hadn't thought that she noticed this new need to shave that happened to coincide with Mattie's moving in with them. Zeena had always been like that though, noticing something he thought she hadn't noticed, and then bringing it up slyly when he was off-guard. But lately, he'd been to busy dreaming of Mattie Silver to worry much about Zeena oppression. As Ethan watches Mattie and Denis dancing, all the little hints that Zeena had been giving about Mattie and Denis came together.
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