Ethan looks forward to an evening alone with Mattie, and recalls how warm and inviting the kitchen was in the days when his mother was alive. He remembers that his mother had been a "talker," until her illness, when she fell silent and began to hear voices. When Zenobia Pierce, his cousin, came to help nurse his mother, Ethan was grateful for the company and conversation, and when his mother died, rather than being alone again he asked Zeena to marry him.
Ethan married Zeena because he was afraid of silence, just as his mother was. The Fromes appear to suffer from a fear of loneliness, which causes them to make poor decisions. Ethan associates Mattie with his mother, who unlike Zeena makes the farmhouse kitchen a warm and inviting place.
When they married, Zeena and Ethan agreed that they would sell the farm and saw-mill and move to a larger town, where Ethan would become an engineer. But no one wanted to buy the farm, and as they waited for a year Zeena developed her "sickliness," making any move to a larger town impossible, though Ethan suspects Zeena's illness may be imagined or faked.
Ethan's passivity causes him to accept setbacks too easily. Though he suspects Zeena of faking her illness, he uses it as an excuse to do nothing. Wharton implies that Zeena got "ill" because she couldn't bear moving to a larger town where Ethan would be out of her control.
After a while, Zeena had stopped talking almost entirely, except to complain. Ethan wonders if Zeena is going crazy like his mother (and many other women who lived on isolated farms). But at other times he wonders if maybe she is deliberately holding her tongue and plotting revenge.
The isolation of New England farms was particularly hard on women, who were confined to their houses with domestic chores, whereas the men had more opportunities to socialize when they conducted business.
Not wanting to be caught in the lie he has told to Zeena, Ethan goes to Andrew Hale with his load of lumber and asks for an advance payment, even though he knows Hale never pays sooner than three months after delivery. Hale refuses politely, explaining he needs the money for his son's upcoming wedding to Ruth Varnum. Ethan's pride keeps him from pursuing the matter, and he leaves without the money.
Ethan's typical New England simplicity and rigid code of ethics prevent him from looking after his own interests. Just as he does nothing in the face of the illness he suspects that Zeena is faking, now he doesn't protest or insist on payment from Hale.
In the village Ethan is passed by Denis Eady in his father's cutter (a fancy sled for the time). Ethan's heart sinks as he imagines that Denis is on his way to the farm to meet Mattie. Retrieving his horses from Andrew Hale's stable, he surprises Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum secretly kissing at the top of the hill where he and Mattie paused the night before—the couple, startled, quickly part.
The sight of Ned and Ruth quickly parting when Ethan appears is a reminder of New England society's strict rules regarding male-female relations. But it is also a reminder that Ned and Ruth were willing to break those rules for love.
On the way home, Ethan passes the Frome graveyard again and sees the headstone of his namesake, another Ethan Frome, and his wife, named Endurance. The inscription on their headstone reads: "Dwelled Together in Peace for Fifty Years." He wonders if his own headstone with Zeena will bear the same words.
The name "Endurance" suggests the only course of action open to husbands and wives in an unhappy marriage, in a time when divorce was rare and against most people's religious principles. "Dwelling in peace" is not the same as sharing love.
The farmhouse door is locked—then Mattie opens the door, silhouetted in lamplight as Zeena had been the night before. She has run a crimson ribbon through her hair. The table is carefully laid for supper, with Ethan's favorite pickles in a red glass pickle -dish. The room is warm and bright, and Zeena's cat lies contentedly by the fire. Ethan jealously asks if Mattie has had any visitors. She teases him by describing how she entertained Jotham Powell over a cup of coffee.
The contrast between Zeena and Mattie is emphasized by the parallel between Mattie's appearance at the door and Zeena's in chapter 2. The extra effort Mattie has made to make the kitchen inviting confirms Ethan's belief that she'll be a good wife to someone. The red ribbon and pickle-dish symbolize the couple's passion and their sin against Zeena.
As Ethan and Mattie sit down at the table, Zeena's cat jumps between them onto Zeena's chair. Conversation is strained as they feel that somehow Zeena is in the room with them. The cat goes after the milk and as Ethan and Mattie's hands meet on the handle of the milk-jug the cat knocks over the pickle-dish, shattering it.
The cat can be interpreted as an almost supernatural extension of Zeena, or as a manifestation of Ethan and Mattie's guilt about their illicit love.
Mattie is distraught. The pickle-dish was one of Zeena's most prized wedding gifts. In fact, Zeena prizes it so highly that she never ever uses it. Ethan consoles Mattie by replacing the broken fragments on the top shelf of the china-closet, saying that if he cannot replace it he will glue it together the next day. Mattie is reassured, and they return to supper.
Now it's clear that the pickle-dish symbolized Ethan and Zeena's marriage. The breaking of the dish represents their failed marriage in contrast to Mattie and Ethan's love. Yet Ethan's response is not to acknowledge his love affair with Mattie, but to try to hide it by fixing the dish and pretending nothing happened.