Ethan Frome: Novel Summary: Chapter 5
After supper, Ethan and Mattie settle down in the kitchen for the evening. At first, Mattie sits out of sight of Ethan. Wanting to see her, he asks her to come and sit by the stove. She obediently takes a seat in Zeena's chair. Ethan has a momentary vision of his wife's head where Mattie's is. Mattie seems uncomfortable and, saying that she cannot see to sew, returns to her original seat. Ethan surreptitiously moves his chair so that he can see her. The cat once again sits in Zeena's chair and watches them.
Ethan and Mattie chat easily and comfortably, and he fantasizes that they will go on spending their evenings like this. He suggests that they go sledding the following evening if there is a moon. She delightedly agrees. He asks her if she would be too scared to go down the slope with the elm at the bottom. She insists she would be no more scared than he would be. But he points out that he would be scared, as it would be easy to collide with the elm.
Ethan tells Mattie that he on his way home, he saw a friend of hers getting kissed. Mattie blushes and seems guarded. He speculates about when Ned and Ruth will wed, and says it will be Mattie's turn next. Mattie asks why he keeps saying such things; he replies, to get him used to the idea. But Mattie feels that he is really referring to Zeena's desire to get rid of her. She is distressed, and they agree not to think about it. He touches the edge of the material she is sewing. He feels a warm current pass between them, and a faint movement of her eyelashes shows her awareness of his gesture. The moment is broken when the cat suddenly jumps off Zeena's rocking chair to chase a mouse, and sets the chair in ghostly motion. Ethan has the painful realization that Zeena will be rocking in it herself this time tomorrow, and feels now that this is the only evening he and Mattie will ever have together. He tenderly kisses the material he Is holding. As his lips rest on it, it glides from him, as Mattie rolls it up to put it away in the sewing box he had bought her.
She finishes her nightly household duties and they retire to bed separately. He realizes that he has not even touched her hand.
Ethan and Mattie's conversation about the dangerous elm at the bottom of the coasting slope is another example of foreshadowing their fate. Though at this point we do not know what finally happens to them, we know that Ethan ends up crippled.
Mattie's comment - that she would be no more frightened to go down the slope than Ethan would be - can be taken as an obscure way of saying that she would be willing to meet him half-way in their illicit relationship. Because we know how dangerous the slope is, there is an undercurrent of recklessness in this exchange that applies equally to the sledding and to their relationship. They are taking a risk in entertaining the possibility, though Ethan is at this point still pulling back, saying, "I wouldn't do it."
During their evening together - as Ethan thinks, the only one they will ever have - the spectral presence of Zeena still haunts them and breaks into their moment of tenderness. When the cat jumps off Zeena's chair in pursuit of the mouse, he sets it rocking as if she herself were rocking it. Ethan is reminded that at this time the following day, she will be there, and there is nothing he can do to "stop the mad flight of the moments."
While Mattie responds with carefully controlled warmth to Ethan's gesture of kissing her sewing material, the connection between them is broken by the cat's action in setting Zeena's chair rocking. Mattie immeditately slips the material from under Ethan's lips, rolls it up and puts it away. It is significant that she puts in the box he gave her - her attention is on him, but she cannot be open with her feelings and must keep them in a metaphorical 'box.' Then Mattie drags the cat's bed over to the stove, symbolically reaffirming Zeena's place at the hearth of the household. Mattie and Ethan depart separately to their own bedrooms.
Modern readers will be struck by the tight control over expression of feeling, uncharacteristic of today, and the consequently extreme significance of the tiniest gestures and smallest motions of the body. Wharton was writing in an age where the stigma attached to illicit relationships was great, and that of divorce even greater. She knew this at first hand, as she wrote Ethan Frome when she was trapped in an unhappy marriage to a mentally unstable man (whom she later divorced) and having a passionate affair. As is clear from the episode when Ned Hale and Ruth are embarrassed by Ethan's seeing them kissing, even displays of affection within a regular courtship were not considered quite decent.