We flash back to twenty-four years ago. It is midnight and once again, the village is under snow. Ethan Frome is walking along the quiet streets. Four or five years earlier he had taken a course at a technical college, but his studies had been broken off by his fathers death and the misfortunes that followed it.
Ethan stops in front of the church, where a dance is in progress. He peers in through the window, careful to stay unseen. His gaze is drawn to a girl with a cherry-colored scarf around her head, dancing with a young man. We learn that her dance partner is Denis Eady, son of Michael Eady, a successful Irish grocer. Ethan is angry at Eadys show of ownership over the girl. We then learn that the girl is Mattie Silver, the daughter of Ethans wifes cousin. Mattie came to live with the Fromes a year ago as home help to the sickly Zeena. Zeena wants Mattie to go to such events as the dance in order to offset the isolation of the Starkfield farm. Mattie is unpaid, or (Ethan reflects) Zeena would not have been so considerate.
At first, Ethan resented having to accompany Mattie the two miles into the village and back, but now he wishes that he did it every night. He delights in their walks to and from the village, and her presence heightens his already sensitive appreciation of the natural beauty around him. He is able to talk to her of the constellations and how the ice age formed the landscape around them, and she responds with wonder. Now, he feels unhappy that she is lifting the same joyful face to her dance partners as she lifts to him. He also worries because Zeena is complaining at Matties inefficiency with the housework. Ethan had started to neglect the farm so that he could help her around the house. One night, he had come downstairs to scrub the kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed, and Zeena had caught him, and given him one of her silent “queer looks.”
Zeena had shown other signs of disquiet about Mattie. One morning, she had told Ethan that the doctor said she should not be left without someone to do the housework for her. Ethan had asked what she meant. Zeena had said that Mattie would probably marry soon and leave them. Ethan had replied that she would not leave as long as Zeena needed her, but Zeena had said that she would not stand in the way of Mattie marrying a “smart fellow” like Denis Eady. Zeena had said that the doctor has recommended a girl to replace Mattie. Ethan had told her he could not discuss it now, as he was late for work. Zeena makes a sly remark to the effect that this is because he now shaves daily, implying that he is doing so for Mattie. Ethan had recognized this as a hostile “thrust,” and had realised that Zeena may have guessed his feelings for Mattie.
While during his conversation with Zeena he had not been worried by her reference to Denis Eady, now that he is standing outside the church watching Mattie dance with Denis, he feels disturbed.
The fact that Ethans studies at college had been sufficient to make him “aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things” but not sufficient to be of any practical use is typical of the state of limbo, or half-life in which Ethan exists.
Mattie Silver, whom we first see dancing with a cherry-colored scarf around her hair, represents a vivid streak of life and sensuality in his monochrome, frigid, monotonous existence: “.the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.” The color symbolism is continued in the red sunsets they watch together on their walks to and from the village, which he sees reflected in her face.
The contrast between Mattie and Zeena is clear at our first sight of Zeena. One cold winter morning, as Ethan dresses in the dark, Zeenas “flat whine” comes spookily out of the gloom from the bed behind him. Her first words, “The doctor dont want I should be left without anybody to do for me,” indirectly tells us much about her. We see that she has become used to the invalid life, that she wishes it to continue, and that she expects others to support her. We also see her manipulative nature in the way she places her own wishes in the authoritative mouth of the doctor and her assumption that Mattie will leave. In fact, she already engineering Matties departure, but she speaks of it as Matties own desire, for the ostensible reason that she will undoubtedly want to marry. Zeenas comment also has a deeper resonance: it suggests that on some level she fears that Ethan and Mattie will run off together and leave her alone.
The contrast between the women is reflected in the color symbolism. While Matties symbolic colors are passionate red (her scarf) and flashing silver (her name), those associated with Ethans dismal household are grey, white and black – a monochrome palette. Zeena is portrayed as lying under a “dark” quilt, her bony face grey against her white pillow.
Zeena displays her slyness in her indirect remarks to her husband. Ostensibly talking about his habitual lateness arriving at work, she points out that it might be due to the fact that he shaves every day now. He recognizes this as a hostile “thrust”, implying that he is prettying himself up for Mattie. He is surprised, as he thought that she was always asleep when he left for work. The impression we gain of Zeena is that of a silent, sinister watcher who is not straightforward about her intentions and motives.
Mattie and Ethan are also contrasted, through the imagery of light and dark that permeates the novel. Mattie is portrayed in terms of life-giving light and warmth, Ethan in terms of death-like darkness and cold. When he is waiting outside in the cold for Mattie to emerge from the warm, bright dance hall, he retreats into the “darkness” and “shadows.”