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by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome Chapter 2 Summary
As the youths rush out of the church basement Ethan stands back and watches. It is a merry scene. He hears a woman call out to Mattie, asking her if she plans on doing a little sledding tonight. Ethan feels his pulse suddenly race. Mattie declines the offer to sled, citing weather. Ethan is very near Mattie, though they can't see each other. Ethan knows Mattie will show herself soon, and that as his eyes are adjusted to the dark, he'll be able to see her clearly. (Though she won't be able to see him.) Shyness takes him and he hides a little more. Mattie's who Ethan thinks is a brighter, easier person than himself, had helped bring him out of his shell, and had helped lighten him up. But now Ethan feels uneasy, like back when he was in college, and "had tried to 'jolly' the […] girls" (2.3). (It's implied that Ethan wasn't too successful in his jollying.) Mattie, one of the last to exit the dance, looks around, maybe like she's looking for Ethan. A man walks near her. The man insinuates that Mattie has been stood-up by Ethan, and says he has his dad's " cutter" to help rectify the situation. He wants to use it to sled with Mattie. Ethan is in suspense. Denis fetches the old cutter, but Mattie laughingly refuses his advances. He continues trying to persuade her, and they move beyond Ethan's range of sight and vision. (Finally) Ethan hears Eady drive up, and he runs to Mattie, and asks her if she thought he'd stood her up. Mattie says she didn't; but that she thought maybe Zeena was sick. Ethan assures her this is not the case, and asks Mattie if she intended to walk home all by herself. Excitedly, she says she is not afraid of the long walk home. Ethan asks why she didn't accept Denis' offer to drive her. Mattie asks how he knew about the Denis thing, laughing. They walk on, arm in arm, in the darkness. Ethan desires to rub his check on Mattie's scarf. Instead, he asks Mattie if she'd like to make a coasting date with him. They decide to have a little coasting adventure the following night, provided the moon is bright. Mattie tells Ethan that the other night Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum had almost met their deaths by accidentally crashing into an elm tree at the bottom of the slope. It would have been so sad, because Ned and Ruth are happy and in love. Ethan claims he can take that elm tree with his sled anytime, and asks if Mattie would still be afraid of the elm if he were driving the sled. She says she's not the fearful kind, but she says it like she doesn't care. Mattie is a person of quickly changing moods. Ethan doesn't feel he has "the right to show his feelings" and find out hers (2.38). So he's constantly trying to read every little thing she does and says to see if she likes him, and knows he likes her. Right now he thinks she doesn't care. When she dissed Denis Eady he felt joy. Now he feels almost like there is no hope. But Ethan needs to know if she likes him, and so he tries to provoke her a little. He suggests that if she hadn't danced that extra dance with Denis Eady, she would have seen Ethan right away. She doesn't try to defend herself. He takes the more direct approach and says he imagines that the rumors are true. She wants to know what rumors he's talking about. Rumors, he tells her, that she'll be leaving the Frome household soon. Mattie begins to freak out, and she asks Ethan if Zeena has had enough of her. She says she knows she's not the most excellent helper in the world, but that she could do better if Zeena would just express her needs a little more. Mattie can tell by Zeena's face that she isn't happy with her. She begs Ethan to tell her what Zeena needs – unless he too wants to see her gone. Of course he doesn't want her to go. Her words soothe him. He knows she wants to stay. They walk together quietly. When they hear a gunshot, and then a fox bark, Mattie snuggles up closer to Ethan and then begins to walk faster. He asks her if she for sure doesn't want to leave the Frome house. She asks him where she would possibly go if she left, and Ethan thinks she might be crying, though she denies it when he asks her. He feels her warm body next to his. They walk in though the gate of the Frome house, and passed "the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow" (2.55). The gravestones seem to speak to Ethan. Taunting him they seem to say, if they couldn't escape Starkfield, how could Ethan? Ethan has the sudden thought that he will be stuck in Starkfield until he dies. He knows he has to find a way to keep Mattie with him forever, and he imagines being buried with her when they both die. When he has thoughts like that he feels happy. Mattie trips and steadies herself by yanking on Ethan's sleeve. He puts his arms around her for the first time. She doesn't try to stop him. They walk together this way. Zeena is probably in bed. She always goes to bed right after she eats. The windows of the house are dark. Ethan sees "a dead cucumber vine" drooping off the porch (2.58). Sometimes people tie a streamer to a door handle when a person formerly living in the house has died. The vine reminds Ethan of one of those. He imagines it might be for Zeena. Ethan imagines her lying upstairs now, in bed, with her mouth open. Zeena doesn't have any of her own teeth left. He imagines her fake teeth, in a cup by their bed. Zeena usually locks the door and leaves the key under the mat for Ethan and Mattie. Ethan and Mattie stop groping each other, and Ethan goes for the key. Alas! The key is not to be found. A bit of a panic ensues. Something stirs from within the house. The door opens. Zeena appears. She has a blanket wrapped around herself with one hand, and is holding onto a lamp with the other. Her face is cast in shadows. She looks very different to Ethan, than ever before. Ethan and Mattie walk into the bitterly cold kitchen. He asks Zeena if she forgot the key. She says, "No. I just felt so mean I couldn't sleep" (2.70) (These phrase is rather ambiguous, at least until we know more. Click here for some meanings of the word "mean" and see which ones you think apply.) Mattie understands this to mean that Zeena has been feeling physically ill and rushes to her offering sympathy and help. Zeena refuses, and gripes at her for not stomping her boots before entering the house. Then she walks over to the stairs. Ethan wants make sure that Mattie goes up before he does. Otherwise, she might seem him walking into the bedroom with Zeena, and he doesn't like the idea of this. So, Ethan says he's going to stay down and do a little accounting work. Zeena says he'll get sick if he works without heat. (In the early 1900s, when this book is set there wasn't too much central heating going on, certainly not in Starkfield.) He looks at Mattie as he walks away toward the kitchen, and she looks a little afraid. When she's safely headed up the stairs, he agrees with Zeena about the cold, and follows her up the stairs.
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