After the scene in the kitchen, Ethan goes on his nightly inspection of the farm. He returns to find the kitchen empty, with his pipe laid out for him, and a note from Mattie telling him not to worry. In the kitchen he finds a note from Mattie that reads, "Don't trouble, Ethan." He enters his cold unused study and thinks about how he has sacrificed his life for Zeena, and recalls a married man he knew who deserted his own wife and went west with the girl he loved.
The study symbolizes Ethan's lost dreams of getting an education. Yet Ethan's willingness to blame Zeena and fate for his failures shows how he refuses to accept that, above all, his own passivity and cowardice have created his predicament.
He begins writing a letter to Zeena, telling her he is leaving her to go west with Mattie, and will leave Zeena the farm.
Once again, Ethan is pushed to the verge of action...
As he writes, Ethan is besieged with doubts about whether Zeena will be able to sell the farm, and how she will keep it going until she finds a buyer. He also worries how he will be able to support Mattie, considering he has no money and he knows no one who will lend to him.
...only to come up with reason after reason why his plans will fail. Ethan is trapped by societal expectations, but only because he is unwilling to them and face the consequences.
As Ethan lies hopelessly on the sofa, he sees the moon through the window-pane and remembers that he had promised to take Mattie sledding. The beauty of the snowy landscape seems to mock his wretchedness, and he falls asleep.
The tranquility of the landscape contrasts with the turmoil in Ethan's heart, as if nature itself is indifferent to human suffering.
At dawn, Mattie appears in the doorway wearing her red scarf. She is pale and says she has been awake all night, listening for him to come upstairs. As daylight comes and the stove warms the kitchen, Ethan feels more hopeful. He tells Mattie he thinks things will "straighten out" and not to take any notice of what Zeena says.
The red sun and the warmth of the stove, symbols of the passionate love Ethan feels for Mattie, contrast with the cold and darkness associated with Zeena and Starkfield in general.
Ethan goes out to the barn, where he meets Jotham Powell. Jotham tells Ethan that Daniel Byrne is willing to take Mattie's trunk to Corbury Flats, so that the sleigh will be lighter when he takes Mattie to the station to catch the six o'clock train and to pick up the new hired girl. Ethan says it hasn't been decided yet that Mattie is definitely leaving.
Though Jotham works for Ethan, he carries out Zeena's orders, undermining Ethan's authority. Zeena's provisions for Mattie's departure take Ethan by surprise, and the plot seems to race along as he hesitates.
At breakfast, Zeena is unusually alert and active. While Ethan looks on, she criticizes Mattie for neglecting the geraniums, accuses her of stealing a number of items, and discusses the logistics of Mattie's departure with Jotham Powell.
Zeena's determination contrasts with Ethan's inertia. Ethan's failure to defend Mattie from Zeena's slanderous accusations shows her power over him.
Ethan is ashamed at what Mattie must think of him and confused about what to do, though he has resolved to do something. He tells Jotham he is going to Starkfield and that he won't be back for dinner. As he walks to the village the landscape reminds him of Mattie and he realizes he must act at once. He decides to ask Andrew Hale for an advance on the lumber, using the lie that he needs the money to pay the hired girl.
Once again, Ethan decides to act, reminded of Mattie's importance by everything he sees. His humiliation at seeing Mattie banished causes him to swallow his pride and seek assistance from Hale. His love for Mattie makes him blind to the fact that in doing so he will have to compromise his morals.
At the Hale's house, Mrs. Andrew Hale greets Ethan and expresses sympathy for Zeena's poor health and for Ethan's troubles. Ethan is grateful for her sympathy, and continues on his mission, feeling sure that the Hales' compassion will make it easy for him to get the money he needs from them.
Mrs. Hale's compassion for Ethan's suffering and his devoted care for Zeena seems kind. In fact, it is kind—Mrs. Hale really does feel for Ethan's plight.
Ethan quickens his pace, but his conscience overwhelms him as he realizes the immorality of his plan to abandon his wife or to deceive two people who are kind enough to pity him. He turns back to the farm.
However, Mrs. Hale's kindness also reinforces the social expectations that trap Ethan. He can't bear to act in a way that he's been raised to believe is immoral, even if his morality costs him his happiness.