Ethan Frome: Novel Summary: Chapter 3

The next day, Ethan is out hauling wood and reflecting on the previous nights encounter with Zeena. They had gone to bed in silence and Zeena had taken her medicine. She had turned her face away from him, and he had blown out the light so that he would not see her when he lay down. Ethan thinks back to the warm touch of Matties shoulder against his and regrets that he did not kiss her. When she had come to Starkfield, he had expected her to hate the hard life there, but she had never seemed discontented. Zeena had ungenerously put this down to the fact that she had nowhere else to go, but Ethan reflects that Zeena does not apply this principle to herself.
Mattie was the daughter of a cousin of Zeenas, Orin Silver, who had inherited from his wife a thriving drug business but had died penniless. His wife had then died of the shock, and the twenty-year-old Mattie was left alone with only fifty dollars. She had few marketable skills, and when she had tried to learn the more lucrative skills of accounting and shorthand, her health had broken down. Her family resented the fact that her father had lost the savings they had invested in his business, and gave her no financial help. When Zeenas doctor had recommended that she get help in the house, the family had pressured Mattie to accept the position.
There, Mattie had regained her health, though the atmosphere between Zeena and her was at first strained, with Zeena silently critical of the girls efforts. As time passed, however, Zeena found she had “more leisure to devote to her complex ailments,” and seemed to relax somewhat. But Ethan feels uneasy; he has a sense of foreboding, prompted by Zeenas silence and Matties sudden look of warning. He had intended to drive the load of wood to the village for delivery to the builder, Andrew Hale, but then thinks better of it. He decides that if there is going to be trouble between the two women, he should be there, and heads back to the house.
He walks in to find Mattie making coffee and Zeena sitting at the table in her best dress, with her luggage next to her. Zeena tells him that she is in such pain that she is going to the nearby town of Bettsbridge to see the new doctor there. Ethan has seen her make similar trips to see new doctors before, and they worry him because they involve his having to pay for a lot of new medicines. But this time, he is relieved, because this trip to the doctor suggests that Zeenas ailments, and not her suspicion that he is having an affair with Mattie, account for her sitting up the previous night. He calculates that Zeena could not return to the farm before the following evening, and grows excited at the prospect of being alone overnight for the first time with Mattie.
Zeena asks him if he will let the farm hand, Jotham Powell, drive her to the train station, and Ethan agrees. He says he would drive her himself, but must collect payment for the wood from Andrew Hale. This is a lie, as Ethan knows there is no chance of Hales paying so soon, but he wants to avoid spending a long journey with his wife. Ethan instantly regrets his words, as his mention of the payment will make Zeena think she can spend money freely.
Ethans ability to predict rain correctly, even on “stainless” mornings, tells us that his forebodings about “trouble” between Mattie and Zeena are probably as accurate. The fact that bad weather, when it occurs, is inevitable underscores the inevitability of the storm that faces Ethan and Mattie.
There is irony in Ethans hopeful interpretation of Zeenas vigil as being due to her ailments. The possibility that her waiting up has another explanation – suspicion that her husband is having an affair with Mattie – has already been introduced, and Zeenas devious nature alerts us to the fact that whatever she says or does is likely to have an ulterior motive. The irony builds in Ethans excited reaction to Zeenas planned trip to the new doctor. He is pleased for two reasons: going away overnight is hardly the action of a suspicious wife; and he will have time alone with Mattie. He has no idea of the tragic events that Zeenas departure will set in motion.