Ethan calls Zeena's name, but when she does not answer he goes up to their room. Zeena, sitting bolt upright by the window in her traveling clothes, reveals that the doctor has told her she has "complications." Ethan is torn between wishing she would die and feeling compassion for her. Zeena implies that she has kidney trouble and that she ought to have an operation, but that she will settle for a hired girl on doctor's orders. Before Ethan can reply she declares that Aunt Martha has already found her one, and that the girl will arrive the following afternoon.
Zeena continues to use her "illness" to exploit Ethan's guilt in order to get what she wants. In this case, that means removing Mattie from the house because Mattie directly threatens her control over Ethan. Rather than act aggressively to keep Mattie in the house, Ethan is indecisive and finds himself unable to respond to the actions Zeena has taken..
When Ethan objects angrily to the cost, Zeena shouts back at him that she would have been ashamed to tell the doctor that Ethan refused her the money when the fact was she had lost her health nursing Ethan's mother. She says her relatives all told her that Ethan couldn't do less than marry her after that.
Zeena's response to Ethan's objections is to hurl accusations intended to deepen Ethan's guilt and, consequently, further her control over him. Ethan does not argue with her or defend himself.
Struggling with rage and disgust, Ethan tells Zeena that he lacks the money to pay for a hired girl and that he will do the housework himself. Zeena reminds him that he is neglecting the farm already and taunts him with the suggestion that he send her to the almshouse (poorhouse). She asks him about the fifty dollars he was supposed to have gotten from Andrew Hale and without thinking he confesses that he doesn't have it, since Hale always takes at least three months to pay. This is the first time Ethan has been caught in a lie.
Ethan's offer to do women's work would be seen as inappropriate and demeaning. His inability to make the farm profitable is another slight to his sense of masculinity, and Zeena is not above taunting him. By exposing Ethan's lie about the money he said he would get for the lumber, she makes him look and feel even weaker.
Ethan humbly apologizes to Zeena for being a poor man and says he will do the best he can for her. She replies that they will manage since they won't have to pay for Mattie's board any longer. Ethan is confused, but Zeena shrilly insists that Mattie is a burden and that now it's someone else's turn to take her in.
Here Zeena springs her trap, using Ethan's complaints about money against him. Zeena's decisive actions shatter Ethan's delusion that he can keep things as they are by doing nothing.
Mattie's voice sounds from the landing, calling Ethan and Zeena to supper. Zeena says she's not coming down and Ethan calls out that he will be there in a minute. Ethan tries to shame Zeena into agreeing to keep Mattie on, but Zeena replies that people are gossiping about him and Mattie, and that she should have let Mattie go long before.
Zeena puts the final nail in the coffin when she insinuates that the villagers are talking about Mattie and Ethan. Ethan can't bear the thought of being considered immoral by his community.
Realizing that he has been "mastered" by Zeena, Ethan looks at his wife with loathing. His helplessness makes him hate her, and he feels that she is the cause of all of his failures. For a moment he clenches his fist, then retreats to the kitchen.
At the supper table Mattie looks at Ethan happily, oblivious to what has just occurred. Ethan is so upset that he can't eat and Mattie realizes something is wrong. He takes her in his arms and they kiss passionately. He says he can't and won't let her go. Mattie is bewildered, and Ethan is forced to tell her that the doctor has ordered Zeena to get a hired girl, which Mattie realizes would force her to leave.
Mattie's naïveté is striking in contrast to Zeena's conniving strategies. Mattie's helplessness also highlights Ethan's lack of authority. He too is helpless in his desire to help her. Their kiss comes at the moment when hope seems lost, heightening its poignancy.
Mattie tries to console Ethan but she knows her prospects of getting work are poor. Ethan remembers stories he has heard about girls like Mattie who look for work in cities like Worcester and Stamford.
Workrooms in mills and factories were poorly ventilated, labor laws were nonexistent, and wages were often extremely low.
Ethan says he won't let her leave, and that he will stand up to Zeena. At that moment Zeena comes down from the bedroom and sits at the table. Zeena says she is feeling better and starts eating, while Ethan sits speechless and Mattie tries to act as if everything is normal. After eating, though, Zeena complains of heartburn and goes to get some stomach powder.
At this moment of crisis, it seems that Ethan has finally decided to act. Yet Ethan is speechless when Zeena appears. Zeena's cheerfulness seem particularly cruel, and implies that Zeena takes pleasure in hurting Ethan.
When Zeena returns, she is furious and carrying the broken pickle-dish. Ethan tells her the cat knocked it over, to which Zeena replies that a cat couldn't set the pieces neatly back on the shelf. Mattie then confesses that she took down the pickle-dish to make the dinner table pretty. Zeena accuses Mattie of taking from her the thing she cared for most of all. She says she always knew Mattie was a bad girl, and adds that she should have thrown Mattie out long ago.
Though Zeena seems just as miserable in her marriage as Ethan does, her anger over the broken pickle-dish (a symbol of her marriage), shows her deep desire to save her marriage. This makes sense in the novel's social context: Ethan (a man) has prospects beyond marriage, but for Zeena (a woman), marriage is the only option. So it's not surprising that Zeena takes whatever steps she feels are necessary to preserve her marriage .