Ethan Frome: Novel Summary: Chapter 2
As the dancers pour out of the hall, Ethan shyly draws back out of their sight. Even when Mattie comes out and looks around for him, he does not come forward, although in general, her expressiveness and freedom spreads to him. Denis Eady approaches and asks Mattie if her "gentleman friend" has failed to turn up. He offers to take her for a ride in his father's cutter (a horse-drawn sleigh). Ethan still hangs back, wanting to know whether Mattie will accept Eady's offer. Mattie politely declines and sets off towards home on foot.
Ethan is happy that Mattie has not gone with Denis Eady. He catches up with her under the Varnums' spruce trees and asks her why, if she thought he hadn't come, she didn't go with Denis. Surprised that he knows about Denis's invitation, she laughs delightedly at his sudden appearance. They link arms and walk home together. On the way, they look at the "coasting" slope, where people go sledding. He tells her that they can go sledding the following night if there is a moon. She says that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, a young engaged couple, had gone sledding and had nearly collided with the big elm tree at the bottom of the slope. She and the others present thought they had been killed. Ethan points out that Ned is no good at steering, whereas he himself could take her down safely.
Ethan wants to know Mattie's feelings about Denis Eady, but cannot ask her directly. Instead, he comments that it is natural that she should leave his household (to marry Denis). Mattie fears that he really means that Zeena is dissatisfied with her work and is planning to fire her. Mattie says she wishes Zeena would openly tell her what is wrong with her work, so that she can learn to do better. She wonders if Ethan also wishes her to go. Though this is far from Ethan's intentions, he cannot tell her his feelings. He only tells Mattie that he and Zeena mean for her never to leave. He muses silently that his dead ancestors who failed to get away and were buried on the farm will conspire with him to keep Mattie there.
As they approach the house, he notices the dead vine hanging from the porch like one of the crepe streamers that were traditionally displayed by the door of a house in mourning. He wonders what would happen if it were there to mark Zeena's death.
Zeena usually leaves a key under the doormat for them when they come home late from the village, but tonight, Ethan cannot find it. He has a wild momentary fantasy that tramps may have been there - his unspoken implication being that they may have killed Zeena. While he is on his knees looking for the key, the door opens and he sees his wife. Zeena explains that she felt too ill to sleep. She holds up a lamp to light their way into the house and up the stairs. Ethan is reluctant to let Mattie see him follow Zeena into their bedroom, and says he will stay downstairs to do his accounts. Zeena points out that it is too cold. Ethan fancies that he sees a look of warning flash across Mattie's face. He agrees with Zeena and obediently follows her upstairs.
During their walk home from the dance, Ethan muses on the possibility of being with Mattie forever on the farm. He feels that all the dead Frome ancestors who failed to get away and were buried on the farm will conspire with him to keep Mattie there. It is a sinister image when applied to the lively Mattie, suggesting that the repression and death that marks Ethan's life will overtake her and imprison her.
Because we know from the Author's Introductory Note that Ethan ends up crippled, the conversation between him and Mattie at the coasting slope about Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum's narrow escape from death appears to be a foreshadowing of their own fate. This lends the entire story the weight of foreboding and a tragic inevitability.
Zeena's failure to leave a key for Ethan and Mattie and her waiting up for them is another suggestion that she intuits that something illicit is going on between them. Zeena blames her illness for the fact that she is still up, another example of how she uses her status as an invalid to manipulate and retain control over others.
The contrast between Zeena and Mattie is reinforced by the descriptions of Zeena's gaunt face, puckered throat, flat breast and projecting bones, as against Mattie's fresh and rosy-cheeked beauty. As far as character is concerned, Zeena is portrayed as a complaining old crone, sharp-eyed and mean-tongued, and with one foot firmly planted in the grave, whereas Mattie is vigorous, beautiful and delights in life. Ethan is caught between the two worlds of life and death: in love with the vital Mattie, but married to the deathly Zeena. He retains enough vitality himself to be invigorated by Mattie's company and dreams of escaping his dead marriage to live with her. But it is hardly a hopeful sign that one of the ways he sees this happening, in his romantic fantasies, is for his dead ancestors to join with him in keeping Mattie on the farm. Instead of embracing life with Mattie, he dreams of their being embraced by death.
Zeena's dominance over her husband is shown symbolically by her tall figure towering above him in the doorway as he scrabbles about on his knees looking for the key. Psychologically, it is shown by his ready acquiescence to her view that it is too cold for him to stay downstairs and do his accounts.