After Zeena retires upstairs, Mattie clears up the kitchen and Ethan makes his usual rounds outside. The kitchen is empty when he gets back, but Mattie has left a note for him, saying, “Dont trouble, Ethan.” Ethan feels he cannot give up the “life” and “warmth” that Mattie gives him. A storm of rebellion rises within him: why should he waste his life in service of the bitter, querulous Zeena, wose only pleasure is to inflict pain on him? He flings aside a cushion that Zeena had made and reflects on the case of a local man who had escaped from a similar life of misery by going West with the girl he loved. They had a child and prospered, and even the deserted wife had done well. Encouraged by this example, Ethan decides to go West with Mattie, leaving a note for Zeena. He plans to leave her the farm and mill so that she can sell it and live off the money.
Then Ethan begins to reflect. He was sure of finding work and could manage if he were alone, but with Mattie depending on him, the case was different. And the farm and mill were mortgaged to the hilt; Zeena would only clear a thousand dollars on the sale. She could return to her family, the fate she was forcing on Mattie. But then he notices an advertisement in the paper offering trips West, and realizes he cannot even afford the reduced rate. He cannot borrow money, as he has no security. He is “a prisoner for life,” he decides, and will lose his “one ray of light,” Mattie. He collapses on the sofa in tears. Then he notices that the moon is up, and remembers his promise to take Mattie sledding that evening. He falls asleep.
Ethan wakes cold, stiff and hungry, and recalls that it is Matties last day. Mattie comes in, aware that he has not been to bed, since she was listening all night for him to come upstairs. He is touched by her concern and makes up the fire for her. He comforts himself that Zeena may relent and allow Mattie to stay. When he goes out to the cow-barn he meets Jotham, who tells Ethan of the arrangements that Zeena has already made with him to take Mattie and her trunk to the station. Ethan replies that the question of Matties leaving is not settled.
The two men go into the house to join the women for breakfast. Zeena is unusually alert and is feeding the cat. She asks Jotham about the travel arrangements for Mattie. Then she says that there are some things she wants to clear up with Mattie before she leaves – namely, she believes that certain household items are missing. She and Mattie leave the room, and Jotham tells Ethan that he will go ahead with the travel arrangements. Ethan views these proceedings without a word.
After Ethan finishes his morning tasks, he becomes fired with rebellion once more. He feels appalled that he has assisted “as a helpless spectator at Matties banishment.” He makes up his mind to do something, but he does not know what. The sun has come out and a “pale haze” of spring can be seen. Matties presence seems to infuse the entire scene.
He thinks of an idea. He will ask Andrew Hale once more to advance him a payment on the wood, using the excuse that Zeenas ill health makes it necessary to hire a servant. Catching sight of Hales sleigh, he hurries to meet it, but sees it is Mrs Hale in the sleigh. Mrs Hale tells him that she has heard about Zeenas going to see the new doctor. She expresses regret that Zeena is not feeling well and says that she does not know what she would have done if Ethan had not been around to take care of her. She commiserates with Ethan: “Youve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome.”
Ethan is moved by Mrs Hales kindness and at first is strengthened in his purpose, thinking that the Hales may look sympathetically on his request for payment. He begins to walk to their house to see Mr Hale, but draws up short at the realization that he is about to take advantage of their sympathy to obtain money on false pretences. He cannot find the heart to leave Zeena alone and destitute, particularly if it means deceiving two kind people.
This chapter begins with Ethan forging a plan to leave Zeena and go West with Mattie – and then the plan collapsing as Ethan considers the practicalities and rejects them as unfeasible. Imagery of prisons is used to express the seeming impossibility of escape: “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict.”
The emotion that governs Ethan in this chapter is inaction. He looks on wordlessly as Zeena efficiently arranges Matties departure. After he does his mornings work, he becomes fired with rebellion once more and makes up his mind to do something, though “he did not know what it would be.” His positive mood is reflected in the first glimmer of spring shining through. Once again, Mattie is linked with warmth and life, as contrasted with Zeenas winter: “Every yard of the road was alive with Matties presence.” When he hears a bird call, it sounds like her laughter – one of several instances in which Mattie is likened to a bird.
He comes up with a plan that seems to have a strong chance of succeeding. He will ask Andrew Hale again to advance him part of the payment he is owed for the wood, telling him (falsely) that Zeenas ill health makes it necessary to hire a servant. Then by chance, he meets Mrs Hale, and her kindness and sympathy at first give him hope that his plan will work, but subsequently overcome him with moral paralysis. He decides that he must not fulfil his plan by deceiving two kind people, leaving Zeena destitute into the bargain.
Wharton makes it clear that there are two possible and opposite responses to Mrs Hales kindness, by showing us Ethan progressing through both in succession. There is the one dictated by love: get the money he is owed by telling a lie, and escape with Mattie; and there is the one dictated by the moral high ground: accept that he should not lie or take advantage of the Hales goodwill, even to get money that he is owed, and resign himself to his fate on the farm with Zeena. Ethan chooses the second. However, while Ethan undoubtedly has a strong sense of ethics and duty, he also has a decided tendency to inaction in favor of dreams. This is the man who prefers not to touch Mattie on their evening alone together so that he can retain intact his vision of what it could be like to be with her. It so happens that the moral decision coincides with the path of least action: it gives him a convenient reason to stay with the familiar and not to pursue the unknown path of a life with Mattie.
Some critics have noted Ethans moral absolutism. In reality, there are many shades of grey to be explored among the options of staying with Zeena or going with Mattie, but he sees only moral black (pursuing love and deserting Zeena) or white (the righteous path of duty to the spouse). A modern reader will think of other possibilities, and it is hard to believe that Wharton, with her complex marital history, did not think of them too. For example, Ethan could attempt a rational discussion with Zeena and her family about what she really wanted. He could be firm with the Hales and demand full payment for the wood, giving him more options. He could be firm with Zeena and insist that Mattie stay at the farm. He could leave with Mattie and ensure that between them, they earn enough money to help out Zeena. But he only sees two options: one seems impossible and the other intolerable. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ethan has become as frozen, sterile and rigid as the Starkfield winter landscape.