Ethan and the narrator enter the Frome kitchen, whereupon the “querulous drone” of a womans voice ceases. Two women sit there, though the narrator cannot tell which had been speaking. One of the women, of tall and bony appearance and “slatternly” in dress, rises when the men come in – not to welcome the guest, but to get the meal ready.
The other woman, smaller and slighter, sits huddled in an armchair. Her hair is as grey as her companions, “her face as bloodless and shrivelled.” Her body is limp under her shapeless dress. The kitchen looks poor. When Ethan comments that it feels cold, the seated woman says, in a complaining voice, that the fire has only just been made up as Zeena had fallen asleep. The narrator realizes that this is the woman whose droning voice he had heard as he came in.
The taller woman brings some unappetising left-overs to the table. Ethan introduces her as his wife, and the woman in the armchair as Mattie Silver.
The next morning, the narrator is able to return to his lodgings at Mrs Hales. Mrs Hale and her mother who lives with her, Mrs Varnum, are amazed that Ethan had taken him in for the night. Mrs Hale says that he must have been the first stranger to set foot in the house for over twenty years. Ethan was so proud that he did not like even his friends to go there. She herself and the doctor are the only people who still visit. Mrs Hale says that she used to visit frequently after the accident, but felt that it made them feel worse. Now, she goes twice a year, preferably when Ethan is not at home. It is bad enough, she explains, to see the two women sitting there,”but his face, when he looks around that bare place, just kills me.”
Mrs Hale tells the narrator that she was present when the injured Ethan and Mattie were brought into the Hales house. They had laid Mattie in the room that the narrator is staying in. Mrs Hale and Mattie had been good friends, and Mattie was to have been Mrs Hales bridesmaid. Mrs Hale had stayed all night with Mattie. When she begins to talk about Matties regaining consciousness, she breaks off in tears. She takes up her story again with her hearing a rumor the next day that Zeena had sent Mattie away because she had a hired girl coming. Nobody could understand what Ethan and Mattie were doing coasting when they should have been on their way to the train. She does not know what Zeena thought: “Nobody knows Zeenas thoughts.” But when Zeena had heard about the accident, she had come and stayed with Ethan at the ministers house, where they had taken him. As soon as the doctors said Mattie could be moved, Zeena sent for her to be taken back to the farm. There was, as Mrs Hale says, nowhere else for her to go.
Since the accident over twenty years ago, Mrs Hale says, Zeena has cared for Ethan and Mattie. This was a “miracle,” she says, knowing that before the accident she couldnt even care for herself, “but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her.”
Mrs Hale goes on to say that while Zeena was always cranky, Mattie has “soured” since the accident. The two women are frequently at each others throats, which upsets Ethan and makes Mrs Hale think it is he who suffers the most.
Mrs Hale ends her account by saying that about a week after the accident, Mattie had been expected not to live. Mrs Hale believes it is a pity she did: “. if shed ha died, Ethan might ha lived; and the way they are now, I dont sees theres much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; cept that down there theyre all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”
We take up the story where the Authors Introductory Note left off, with the narrator entering Ethans house and hearing the querulous drone of a womans voice. Wharton uses the same technique of delay in giving us information as she used at the beginning of the novel. The narrator at first does not know whose voice it is. We assume it is Zeenas voice – but we are wrong. The discovery, when it comes, that this is Matties voice, shocks us with its irony.
At the end of the previous chapter, it seemed that the irony of Ethans story could not get any bitterer. But the final chapter surpasses the previous one in irony. Until now, Mattie, with her warmth and beauty, had seemed the opposite of cold, withered, barren Zeena. She represented the new, fertile life to which Ethan wanted to escape. She has turned into the “soured,” “bloodless,” whining invalid that Zeena had been before the accident.
Zeena, on the contrary, has come into her own since that day. She has gained strength from who knows where, and has taken control of the household and cared for Ethan and Mattie. Her transformation raises the question of just how sick she ever was.
It is worth asking what effect Zeenas recovery has on our sympathies. We may feel a cynicism reserved for the conman beggar who throws away his crutches the minute he gets out of sight of potential donors. Or we may, with Mrs Hale, feel some admiration for her, as one who found the strength to cope when “the call” came.
But there is a sense in which Zeenas new role is not new at all. Before the accident, she controlled and manipulated Ethan and Mattie through her supposed illnesses. After the accident, she is no longer the chief invalid, and must adopt another role if she is to remain on top. Now, she controls and manipulates Ethan and Mattie through her role as carer. For Zeena, martyrdom – first to her illnesses, then to her carer role – gives her power over others. Her role as carer is an extension of her witch-like role in earlier scenes and is likely to strike us as being just as sinister. Traditionally, it was believed that black witches could gain power by sucking it from others, which is exactly what has happened: Ethans and Matties ruin has been Zeenas apotheosis. Now, Zeena has everyone where she wants them: Mattie and Ethan are unable to leave her, Mattie is no longer a threat, and Zeena is queen – or tyrant – of her household.
Ethans fate is another bleak and tragic irony. On the coasting slope, he had said that he had wanted always to be with Mattie, and now he has his wish – but at the terrible price of her inability ever to go anywhere else. His prophetic desire (Chapter 2) that his dead Frome ancestors help to keep Mattie with him has been fulfilled. Mrs Hale thinks that if she had died, Ethan may have lived, but now he is trapped with her and Zeena in a kind of living death. It is almost as if a malevolent fate had conspired with the witch-like Zeena to punish Ethans infidelity by giving him the object of his desire and love, only for him to see Mattie turn into a version of the hated Zeena.
However, it would be false to say that Ethan is not responsible for his fate. He consistently fails to take responsibility for making decisions that could create a better life for himself, and by failing to set his own direction, he coasts in the tracks that Zeena and society have set for him. He has given up his power into the hands of others, and has given up life in favor of death. Because he made no decisive move to escape, he ends where he began, trapped in the snowbound, sterile landscape, poverty and despair of Starkfield.