Ethan Frome

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Ethan Frome Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After supper, Mattie sews while Ethan smokes his pipe and sits by the fire. Ethan wishes this scene of domestic bliss would go on forever. But he can't see Mattie where she is sitting so he tells her to sit in Zeena's rocking-chair. When she does, Ethan is unsettled to see Zeena's face superimposed on Mattie's. Mattie also feels uncomfortable and slips back to her usual chair. Zeena's cat jumps onto the rocking-chair and watches them.
Ethan and Mattie finally get a night alone together, and they spend it in domestic, rather than physical, bliss. Ethan, with his strict morals, doesn't want to have an affair with Mattie. He wants to be married to her. But marriage is impossible because he's already married to Zeena, as the superimposed faces show. Faced with this dilemma, Ethan does nothing. He just wishes his time with Mattie would last forever.
Themes
Determinism and Free Will Theme Icon
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon
Gradually, Ethan and Mattie find it easier to talk, and the illusion that they are husband and wife and will always be together grows. Ethan mentions that this was the night they were to have gone sledding, and suggests that they go the following night. They discuss the dangerous elm tree, and Ethan feels sure of his ability to protect Mattie from danger.
In Zeena's absence, the love between Ethan and Mattie flourishes. Their love affair is traditional—Ethan, the competent powerful male protector guards his love from dangerous outside forces, as symbolized by the tree in this scene.
Themes
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon
Hostile or Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Ethan touches the end of the fabric Mattie is sewing, then tells her that he surprised Ned and Ruth kissing by the Varnums' gate. Mattie blushes. He feels that he has crossed a line: inside the house he shares with Zeena, Mattie seems unapproachable. The two talk about Ruth and Ned's upcoming marriage and Ethan, thinking of Denis Eady, says darkly that it will be Mattie's turn to marry next. Mattie asks whether Ethan is saying that because Zeena has said something against her. Ethan replies that nobody can tell what Zeena is thinking.
Ethan's shyness, in addition to his sensitivity to traditional morals, prevents him from acting on his feelings physically. He can do nothing more than touch the end of the piece of fabric Mattie is sewing. For her part, Mattie, playing the traditional woman's role, is unable to make the first move.
Themes
Determinism and Free Will Theme Icon
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon
Realizing that time is running out, Ethan touches the fabric a second time. This time Mattie notices, and it seems as if something might happen between them... But just then, the cat darts at a mouse and Zeena's rocking-chair begins to rock, reminding them that Zeena will be back the following day. As they return to reality Ethan impulsively kisses the end of the fabric. Mattie silently rises, puts away the fabric, and moves the pots of geraniums Ethan has planted for her away from the window. They part without touching, going upstairs to their separate rooms.
Ethan and Mattie are helpless to act on their love, kept apart by the thought of Zeena and by their own moral hang-ups. The scene ends on an unresolved note: Mattie's ambivalent reaction to Ethan's kiss may communicate her discomfort or her longing for Ethan to act more decisively. Ethan's unwillingness to act is typical of the passivity that prevents him from achieving happiness.
Themes
Determinism and Free Will Theme Icon
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon
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