The frame story resumes in the first-person voice of the Narrator. As he and Ethan enter the dark sparsely-furnished farmhouse kitchen, the whining voice grows silent. Two women are in the room: one tall, grey, and bony, who sets about preparing supper, the other smaller and huddled in an armchair, with a witch-like stare.
Ethan's life has gotten worse. Before he had one shrewish wife, but now he seems somehow to have two. The identity of the second woman is a mystery to the reader, for the moment.
Ethan comments that the fire seems almost out. The tall woman ignores him, but the woman in the chair complains in a high, thin voice that Zeena fell asleep and let the fire go out, and that while it was out she thought she would freeze to death. The Narrator realizes that it was she who was speaking when he entered the room. Ethan introduces the tall woman as his wife, and the complaining woman as "Miss Mattie Silver."
Until it is revealed that the second woman is Mattie, and that she, not Zeena, is the owner of the whiny, demanding voice. As Mrs. Hale explains later, suffering has changed her from a sweet girl into a bitter hag. Mattie has gone from Zeena's opposite to her mirror image.
Back in Starkfield the next morning the Narrator reveals to Mrs. Ned Hale and old Mrs. Varnum that he has spent the night at the Frome farm. Mrs. Hale is greatly surprised, and says she believes he is the only stranger who has set foot in that house in over twenty years. Though after the accident she went to the Frome's quite often, Mrs. Hale says that she now only goes there twice a year, because she can't stand to see the look on Ethan's face when the two women "get going at each other." She is about to tell the Narrator what Mattie said to her when she was carried up to the Varnum house after the accident, but she starts crying and cannot finish her sentence. No one knows what Zeena was thinking, she says, but as soon as Mattie could be moved, Zeena took her back to the farm. Mrs. Hale says it is a miracle that someone as sick as Zeena was able to care for two cripples for 20 years, when before the accident she couldn't even care for herself.
The novel never explains why Zeena takes in Mattie. One possible explanation is that Zeena saw an opportunity to torment both Ethan and Mattie by taking in Mattie. But it's also possible that Zeena felt social pressure to take in Mattie because Mattie was a relative who had suffered so horribly. In other words, just as Zeena's "illness" gave her power over Ethan, Mattie's more profound and real suffering seems to have given her power over Zeena, as shown when Mattie complains about Zeena letting the fire go out. At any rate, they are now all trapped by misery, poverty, and disability in their lonely, decaying farmhouse.
The Narrator comments that life must be horrible for them all. Mrs. Hale agrees, but says she thinks Ethan has it the worst. She confides to the Narrator that she thinks it's a pity that Mattie survived the accident, because if she had died, "Ethan might ha' lived." She adds that the way it is now, there's not much difference between the Fromes in the graveyard and the Fromes up at the farm, except that the women in the graveyard "have got to hold their tongues."
Mrs. Hale describes Ethan's life as a kind of living death. Ethan sought to keeps things just as they were by doing nothing. But by never making a choice, either to break the rules of society and go off with Mattie or to give up what he desired and follow society's rules, he managed to destroy everything.