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by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome Chapter 4 Summary
Zeena takes off while Mattie is doing the dishes and then Ethan leaves, too. He and Mattie exchange friendly yet casual good-byes. The kitchen is warm and cozy, complete with potted geraniums and a sleeping cat. Ethan wants to stay, but even more he wants to get his work done so he can be back before the night comes. He thinks of Mattie while he works. Mattie doesn't keep the kind of ultra-clean kitchen his mother had, but makes the place look friendly. In his mind, he imagines their evening together. He sees them by the fire, he smoking his pipe, Mattie laughing and talking. It will be their first time alone. Ever. He lets himself believe everything is OK with Zeena now, and begins to feel better about life. For once, he even whistles while he works. Ethan loves to see people being happy, but is rarely happy himself. At school he loved it when the guys were friendly with him. He has become more and more silent with each passing year. After his dad died, leaving Ethan to take care of the mill, the farm, and his mother, Ethan didn't have time to hang out with young people. His mother stopped talking soon after. When begged by Ethan to speak, she would tell him that due to the loudness of the voices in the yard, she couldn't hear what he was saying. When she was near the end, Ethan's cousin Zenobia came to help him care for the old woman. (Wait a minute. Zeena and Mattie are cousins. Zeena and Ethan are cousins. But it doesn't look like Mattie and Ethan are cousins. Must be different sides of the family.) Ethan was so starved for the sound of another human's voice that Zeena sounded awesome to him. He thought he would have gone insane if she hadn't come, and was very grateful to her. She was also really good and kind to his mother. Zeena was preparing to leave town after the funeral, but he stopped her, and asked that she remain with him in Starkfield. Ethan thinks that if his mother had died in summer or spring instead of the desolate winter, he probably would never have gotten himself in the mess (i.e., he never would have married Zeena). Zeena had agreed to move away from Starkfield with Ethan. The initial plan was to sell the farm and mill and move to a city. Ethan loved nature, but not farming. Engineering was what he planned to study. He thought that Zeena was an intelligent person who would help him build a nice life – away from Starkfield. Zeena's home town was bigger than Starkfield, and closer to passing trains, so she didn't want to live in the middle of nowhere either. But times were hard, and the farm didn't sell. In the meantime, Ethan found out that Zeena would never move. She thought she was better than the people in Starkfield, but couldn't handle the idea of living in a place where people might look down on her. This meant that pretty much anywhere but Starkfield was out of the question. They had been married about a year when Zeena changed from a person in seemingly perfect heath, into a person who was always sick. Lots of people in Starkfield are obsessed with illness, but Zeena has always been an extreme case. The she stopped talking, too. Zeena claimed that talking to Ethan was pointless because he didn't pay attention to the things she said. There was truth in that. Zeena was all nagging and complaining. Sometimes Ethan wonders if Zeena was having psychological problems similar to his mother's. Other times he thinks that she's quietly planning some who-knows-what kind of deed. He feels better now though. If Zeena is her old self, going to expensive doctors and all that, then nothing must be the matter. The only thing bugging him was the lie about money he told to Zeena. So he decides to see if he can collect some money from Andrew Hale. Ethan puts the question to him nonchalantly, and Hale refuses good-naturedly. He says he's short because he's setting up a house for his son Ned and his bride to be, Ruth Varnum. When asked if he needs it badly, Ethan is too ashamed to admit it, and goes away empty handed. He takes care of some other business, and he thinks about how long his seven years of marriage to Zeena has seemed. (By the way, that means Ethan was about twenty-one, and Zeena about twenty-eight, when they got married.) Denis Eady drives by with his dad's cutter. Ethan says hi to Denis, and wonders if he could be going to see Mattie. Ashamed of his jealousy, Ethan walks on and surprises Ned and Ruth, who are kissing in front of the Varnum house, in the same place where he and Mattie had talked last night. It makes him feel happy to have seen lovers. He wishes that he and Mattie didn't have to love in secret. On the long trek home Ethan keeps an ear out for Denis Eady's horse, still wondering if the man had been visiting Mattie. As he nears the farm he sees that Mattie's bedroom light is on, and he imagines her dressing for the evening meal as she always did, much to Zeena's mocking displeasure. He passes the graves again and looks at the one that belongs to an ancestor that has his same name. The stone says that the other Ethan Frome and his wife, Endurance, were married for fifty-years, and buried together. He wonders if he would and Zeena would be married for fifty-years and be buried together. Ethan looks in the barn and has about convinced himself he'll find Denis horse there. But the horse is not there and all is well. He heads to the house. To his astonishment the kitchen door is locked. Well, of course Mattie would want the door locked when she's here, alone on this isolated farm. He calls to Mattie. It's like a replay of the night before, except this time Mattie is coming down the stairs with the lantern instead of Zeena. She's dressed in her regular dress, but has braided a ribbon into her hair that adds a touch of elegance that charms Ethan. The table is set for their evening meal of fresh doughnuts, blueberries, and pickles. Mattie has put the pickles in a pretty red serving dish. The fire burns, and the cat yawns. Ethan feels wonderful and almost too happy. The cat brushes Mattie's leg, almost tripping her. She looks so happy and Ethan can't quite believe it's just because of him. Jealousy comes over him again. Ethan asks Mattie if anybody come by while he was out working. She says that yes, someone had come. A little harshly he asks her who. A little angrily she tells him that Jotham Powell came by. Ethan asks if Jotham got Zeena safely to where she needed to be. Mattie says yes, but speaking of Zeena's name makes them both uneasy and they head to the table. The cat decides to join them, taking Zeena's chair. As they somewhat awkwardly dine together, the cat moves stealthily toward the nearby milk jug. Ethan and Mattie both reach for said milk jug and their hands meet on the handle. Ethan's hand is now on top of Mattie's. The cat backs off, and boom, knocks down the pickle dish onto the floor. Mattie begins to panic. Ethan says he can easily replace the item. Mattie says it's irreplaceable, that it was a wedding gift, and was never supposed to be used. Ethan begs her not to cry, and promises to make everything better. He reassembles the dish in its proper place, and plans to get glue and glue it before Zeena returns. Crisis somewhat averted, they settle back down. Mattie is beaming, and Ethan feels powerful and in control.
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