Ethan calls Zeenas name up the stairs but receives no answer. He enters the bedroom and sees her sitting by the window, in the dark, still in her traveling dress. Ethan tells her that supper is ready, but she says she is not hungry. Then she informs Ethan, “Im a great deal sicker than you think.” Ethan wonders hopefully if her words, which he has heard before, might this time be true. She says that the doctor told her she should not do anything around the house and that she should hire a girl. Her Aunt Martha, with whom she stayed while in Bettsbridge, has found her one, and she is due to arrive the following afternoon.
Ethan is angry. He no longer believes Zeenas claims about how sick she is, and he cannot afford to pay a servant. Zeena says it is the least he can do for her after she lost her own health looking after his mother, a claim which rouses Ethans indignation. This is the first time that they have openly expressed their anger in seven years of marriage. Zeena reminds Ethan of the fifty dollars he claimed he was going to get from Andrew Hale before her departure. Ethan replies that Hale never pays in less than three months. As soon as the words are out, Ethan realizes that he has been caught out in his own lie. He had told Zeena that the reason he could not drive her to the station was because he had to collect this payment. Ethan is wrongfooted and Zeena forces home her advantage, pointing out that when Mattie has left they will not need to pay for her board and can use the money to pay the hired girl. Then she laughs – for the first time, insofar as Ethan can remember. She says that they have suppported Mattie for long enough.
Ethan is shocked and attempts to defend Mattie, saying that they cannot simply put her out onto the street. He realizes that Zeena has mastered him, and he abhors her. He is about to hit her, but stops himself, and merely asks if she is coming down to supper. She says she is not, and that she will lie down for a while.
Ethan goes downstairs to eat with Mattie, but has no appetite. She anxiously asks what is wrong. He leaves his chair and walks around the table to stand by her. As she leans towards him, he catches her in his arms and kisses her. In an outburst of emotion, he tells her that he will never let her go. Mattie is confused at first, but soon understands from Ethan that Zeena means to replace her. They begin to discuss her prospects of getting another job, but he feels that there is little chance of this, due to her inexperience and lack of training. Ethan tells her that he means to have his way with Zeena at last, but Mattie silences him with a warning gesture as Zeena enters the room. She says she will eat to keep her strength up, though she has no appetite. The cat rubs against her. She pets it and feeds it a piece of meat from her plate.
While Ethan sits silently, Mattie tries to engage Zeena in polite conversation. Zeena has a faint smile on her face. Having finished her meal, she goes off to hunt for her stomach powders. Ethan gets up to go out and take a look around. At the door, he meets Zeena who has come back in bearing the broken pieces of the pickle dish, which she found while looking for her stomach powders. She demands to know who broke it. Ethan tells her the cat did it. Zeena is not satisfied: she wants to know who laid the pieces together. Mattie defends Ethan by saying that while the cat did break the dish, she took it down from the closet, and so she is to blame. Zeena is furious that Mattie “took the thing I most set store by of anything Ive got.” She calls Mattie a bad girl and says she should have turned her out long ago. In tears, Zeena gathers up the broken pieces as if she were carrying a dead body, and leaves the room.
Wharton treats Zeenas supposed illnesses with savage irony. Zeena says that she is sicker than Ethan thinks, and that she has “complications.” On this basis, she claims the authority of one “chosen” and “singled out for a great fate”: to have “troubles” was common, but to have “complications” “was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant.” She is conferring upon herself the special status of a martyr. No longer whiny and reproachful, Zeena is now resolute. Her illness becomes a weapon that she uses to take control of her household. She means to get rid of her rival, Mattie, and instal a hired girl in her place.
Zeena comes over as a sort of parasite, who grows stronger from the suffering of Ethan and Mattie. She laughs, for the first time, as far as Ethan is aware, just after she has told him that they will pay for the hired girl by getting rid of Mattie. This is the worst thing that Ethan can imagine, and it would certainly ruin Mattie too – but Zeena is happy, in her fashion. This, in turn, follows Zeenas effortless exposure of Ethans lie that he could not drive her to the station because he was collecting the payment from Hale. Zeena has triumphed over her husband, who, as the narrator comments, is no good at lying.
The cat is confirmed as Zeenas agent, rubbing himself “ingratiatingly” against her and receiving praise and the payment of a piece of meat from her plate.
So unsympathetic is the character of Zeena that readers may regret that Ethan conquers his impulse to hit her – or at least, that he fails to stand up for Mattie and himself. But Ethan is a past master at suppressing his impulses. Mattie appears the more courageous one, taking the blame for the broken dish upon herself in an attempt to defend Ethan from Zeenas wrath.
Zeenas response to her discovery of the broken pickle dish is laden with symbolism and psychological import. She describes the dish as “the thing I most set store by of anything Ive got.” It is both ludicrous and tragic that above her husband, home, cousin Mattie, farm, and animals, she prizes. a pickle dish. Her tears over the dish represent her first and only display of real emotion. But though she prized the dish, she never used it, but kept it in a place that ensured it could never be used. As noted before, this denotes the sterility of her life and marriage.
However, there is another meaning behind her response. The dish is symbolic of her marriage to Ethan, and Mattie, by taking it down from the closet, enabled it to be broken. So Zeenas tears can be taken as genuine grief over the destruction of her marriage by Mattie.
But beyond even this level of meaning is that which arises from the symbolism that has been built up around the cat and the pickle dish. The cat is Zeenas agent, and the pickle dish is Zeenas marriage, so ultimately, Zeena herself is responsible for breaking both dish and marriage! The cat delivered the conscious expression of a truth that both Zeena and Ethan knew – that the marriage was dead. This is reinforced by the image at the end of the chapter of Zeena carrying out the broken dish “as if she carried a dead body.”
To blame Zeena for the pickle dish incident is the verdict of the heart at which many readers arrive, though it is the opposite of the moral verdict, which must condemn Mattie and Ethan for their disloyalty to Zeena.