Ethan Frome - Chapter Summary Essay

This essay has a total of 4363 words and 21 pages.

Ethan Frome - Chapter Summary

PROLOGUE
One thing that sets Ethan Frome apart from other novels is the way the story is told.
Edith Wharton doesn't just start at the beginning and tell you what happens. Rather, she
uses a narrator who knows no more about Ethan Frome than you do.


The narrator, who remains nameless, is a young engineer. He tells you how he uncovered
Ethan's story bit by bit. He recounts what people said to him and what he observed during
the months he spent in Ethan's hometown one winter long ago.


This opening chapter is a prologue to the main story. It introduces the narrator,
describes the town and surrounding countryside, describes some townspeople, and starts to
build some of the novel's major themes. But most of all, it stirs your curiosity about
Ethan Frome.


The narrator you directly by saying "If youk now Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the
post office." The post office is where he first laid saw Ethan. Every day at noon Ethan
parked his buggy at the curb and picked up mail at the post office window. He rarely got
anything except the local newspaper and an occasional package of patent medicine addressed
to his wife, Zeena Frome.


Ethan seldom talked to anybody. When someone addressed him, he answered quietly with as
few words as possible before mounting his buggy and driving slowly back to his farm. He
appears to be a cheerless, broken man.Ethan catches the narrator's eye because his looks
are striking. Tall and powerful, Ethan must have been a strong man at one time. But now he
hobbles when he walks, his shoulders sag, and he has a red gash, the scar of an old wound,
across his forehead. To the narrator, Ethan looks as though he "was dead and in heel". Yet
he is only fifty-two years old.


Harmon Gow, Starkfield's stage driver, explains Ethan's run-down appearance and his age
.It was the "smash-up," he says, an event that occurred twenty-four years ago.It was a
terrible smashup, Gow recalls, and it should have killed him. But, he adds, the Fromes are
tough, and Ethan will probably live to be one hundred.


The narrator, it turns out, has spent a whole winter in Starkfield. An engineer for a
power company, he had been sent to do a job in nearby Corbury Junction. A strike delayed
the work, so he had plenty of time to get to know the area. Winter, he tells us, "shut
down on Starkfield." For close to six months the town sags under the weight of snow.


A little later,the narrator's life converges with Ethan's. Their encounter gives us a
chance to learn the whole story behind his unusual behavior and appearance.


First you're told how the two men made contact. The narrator works at a powerhouse in a
place called the Junction, a ten-mile commute from Starkfield. Each day he takes a buggy
or sleigh provided by Denis Eady, the owner of the town's livery stable. He is dropped off
in Corbury Flats, three miles away, where he catches a train to the Junction. One day in
midwinter, Eady's horses "fell ill of a local epidemic." Harmon Gow advises the narrator
that Ethan Frome's horse was still healthy, and for a dollar Ethan might be persuaded to
drive over to the Flats each morning and back again in the afternoon.


The narrator expresses wonder that Ethan needs money so badly.

"Well, matters ain't gone any too well with him," replies Gow. For the last twenty years,
he continues, Ethan's had problems making ends meet on his farm. Although it's always been
tough for Ethan, things had gotten even worse. His father got kicked in the head by a
horse, went soft in the brain, and gave away most of his money before he died. Then
Ethan's mother took sick with a disease that took years to kill her. And now Zeena Frome,
Ethan's wife, is sickly, too.


"Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping," says Gow.

Every day for a week after that, Ethan carries the narrator back and forth to Corbury
Flats. Ethan doesn't say much, answering questions in monosyllables. He hardly even looks
at his passenger. To the narrator, Ethan is like a piece of the "mute, melancholy" winter
landscape, a piece of "frozen woe."


Only twice during many trips to and from work does Ethan emerge from his shell. Once he
reveals that long ago he had briefly been in Florida, but the memory of it is now "all
snowed under." Another time the narrator misplaces a popular science book on
bio-chemistry.


Later he sees the book in Ethan's hand. Ethan says bitterly that the book contains things
"that I didn't know the first word about"


CHAPTER I
Suddenly you're swept back at least a generation to the time when Ethan Frome is a young
man. You see him walking rapidly through the empty streets of Starkfield. It's a clear
night and as usual in the novel, it is wintertime. Places and names you already know from
the opening chapter are mentioned again.


Ethan walks past Michael Eady's new brick store. (He must be related to Denis Eady, whose
horses will someday take the narrator to work. You'll find out.) Then there's Lawyer
Varnum's house. (He's the father of Ruth Varnum. You know that years from now Ruth will be
Ned Hale's widow, and the narrator will be renting a room from her in this very house.)


Ethan had attended a technological college in Worcester, but because his father was killed
he dropped out after a year. Ever since, images of what he had learned come to him
unexpectedly. You are told that Ethan has a fanciful mind that seeks deep meanings in
ordinary events.


Evidently Ethan doesn't want to be seen outside the church. He avoids the rays of light
shining on the snow and hugs the shadows until he finds the window he wants. Inside the
building it looks like the end of a cheerful, noisy evening of music and dancing. Suddenly
a young man rounds up the crowd for the last dance, a lively Virginia reel. In the
darkness Ethan's heart is beating fast, as though he himself is one of the dancers.


However, his pulse quickens not from the dance but from the anticipation of a particular
girl with a cherry-red scarf on her head. He spies her dancing with Denis Eady. She's
enjoying herself. In fact, she's having too good a time to Ethan, who studies her closely.
That she finds pleasure dancing with that Denis Eady, bothers Ethan.The girl is Mattie
Silver, a cousin of Ethan's wife, Zeena. For the past twelve months Mattie, who is about
twenty-one years old,has been living with the Fromes, earning her keep by doing housework
and aiding Zeena, who is in poor health.


The moment Mattie stepped from the train Ethan fell for her. To him she was "like the
lighting of a fire on a cold hearth." She brought laughter into the house. Most of all,
she enabled Ethan to show off his knowledge of natural phenomena. He pointed out the
constellations and lectured her on rock formations. Ethan and Mattie drew closer to each
other because they liked sunsets, clouds, and the sights they saw together in the fields
and woods.


Throughout their marriage Ethan and Zeena have hardly talked to each other. Zeena spends
most of her time alone, tendingto her ailments. When she speaks it's usually to complain
or scold. She is dissatisfied with Mattie's work around the house and grumbles about the
girl's inefficiency. Zeena has a point, for Mattie isn't good at housekeeping. Now and
then Ethan stops his own work in order to help Mattie with hers. One day Zeena discovered
Ethan churning butter (Mattie's task) and turned away in silence after giving him "one of
her queer looks."


Did that look show that Zeena knows his private thoughts about Mattie? Ethan thinks she
does. On the other hand, perhaps he's just feeling guilty. he recalls one conversation in
particular. One morning dressed and shaved, Zeena informed him that she'd spoken to her
doctor, who told her never to be without help in the house. What will she do, she asks
Ethan, after Mattie leaves. They can't afford to hire another girl. "Why on earth should
Mattie go?" asks Ethan.


"Well, when she gets married, I mean."

Ethan, noticeably flustered by Zeena's talk about Mattie's leaving, can't continue to
discuss it. "I haven't got the time now; I'm late as it is," he says.


She replies sharply, "I guess you're always late, now that you shave every morning." That
comment frightens Ethan more than any other because it is a fact that he started shaving
daily only since Mattie moved into the house. He thought that Zeena didn't notice such
things about him.


Does Zeena know his private thoughts? He suspects that she does. But if he thought it over
, he'd probably realize that he needn't worry over his suspicion, for Zeena is caught up
in her own woes and lacks the vision to see beyond them.


The two mile walks that he and Mattie have been taking from the village to the farm have
become precious to him. Those night walks have brought him and Mattie together. With her
arm in his, they have gazed at the stars and reveled in the beauty of nature.


The passion he has for Mattie, however, is ruined by feelings of uncertainty. Although she
acts as though she's fond of Ethan, she appears to act the same way with Denis Eady as
they dance together on the other side of the window. Every time she smiles at Denis, Ethan
grows less sure of himself. He wonders how his dull talk could ever interest her.


CHAPTER II
Poor Ethan! Without any self-confidence he stays hidden in the shadows as the dancers come
out of the hall. Instead of coming forward, offering Mattie his arm and heading toward
home, he waits behind the door to see what Mattie will do. Ethan hasn't felt this shy in a
long time. Mattie's manner has rubbed off on him a little bit, but tonight he feels "heavy
and loutish" again.


Outside the church Mattie looks around, but still Ethan hangs back. A man approaches her.
It's Denis Eady. He offers to take Mattie home in his father's sled. She needs a little
coaxing, so Denis jokes with her, telling her that he "kinder knew"she'd want to take a
ride tonight. He brings out the sled and turns back the bearskin blanket to make room for
Mattie.


Watching the scene, Ethan waits in agony, as though his life depended on what Mattie
decides. Will she get in, or won't she? Mattie declines Denis' invitation and starts to
walk away. Denis thinks she's just playing hard to get and urges her to climb aboard, but
again she says no. Denis jumps from the sled and takes her arm, but she gets away from
him. Finally, he gives up and drives away.


Ethan goes after Mattie and catches up with her. She is glad to see him, but he is almost
bursting with joy that she turned Denis away. Also, he's impressed at how clever he's been
to spy on her.


Nearing the house Mattie and Ethan pass through the Frome family graveyard. For years the
sight of the headstones has reminded Ethan that like his ancestors he was doomed to live
and die right here on his Starkfield farm. On this night his urge to flee the farm has
vanished. He thinks that staying here with Mattie is all he'd ever want, and when they
die, they'll lie together in this cemetery.


When Mattie stumbles, he steadies her and slips his arm around her. She doesn't resist.
Triumphantly they walk across the frozen snow "as if they were floating on a summer
stream." Suddenly the thought of Zeena comes. In his mind's eye Ethan sees Zeena "Lying in
their bedroom asleep, her mouth slightly open, her false teeth in a tumbler by the
bed...." From bliss to bitterness in an instant.


Standing outside the door, Ethan tries one more time to tell Mattie what he feels. "Matt-" he says. And that's all.

Ethan thinks that as usual Zeena has probably been in bed since just after supper. The
door key will be under the mat. But Ethan can't find it. A wild thought tears through him:
Continues for 11 more pages >>




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