Now that Zeena has left, the house seems warm, bright and "homelike." Ethan gaily whistles and sings as he looks forward to spending an evening with Mattie, just like a married couple. While he has a reputation for being taciturn and serious, he admires gaiety in others and his character warms up when exposed to it.
The narrator recounts the story of Ethan's meeting and marrying Zeena. He was left alone to run the farm and mill after his father's accident, and had no time left for chatting to people in the village. Then, when his mother fell ill, the house felt lonely and silent. When his mother was nearing death, Zeena came to nurse her. Ethan was grateful for Zeena's chat. He was also impressed by her efficiency at the sick bed. After his mother's funeral, he was filled with dread at the thought of being left on his own on the farm for the rest of the winter, and asked her to stay there with him.
When they married, they agreed that they would sell the farm and sawmill and move to a large town. Ethan wanted to work as an engineer and have access to lectures and libraries. But the farm did not sell quickly, and Ethan soon realized that Zeena could not live in a town because she would be looked down upon. She needed to live in a place like Starkfield, where she could look down on others. When she was nursing his mother, she had seemed healthy, but he discovered that her skill at nursing had been gained through observation of her own symptoms. "Then she too fell silent." The very reason why Ethan married her no longer applied. Ethan no longer listened to her, because all her talk consisted of complaining. He worries that her silence may be a sign that she, like his mother, is turning "queer," or that it conceals secret intentions drawn from suspicions.
Ethan worries about his having told Zeena that he is to receive cash for the wood, as this was only a cover story invented as an excuse not to drive her to the station. He therefore asks Andrew Hale for an advance on the payment, but he is too proud to plead an urgent need. Hale genially refuses, partly on the grounds that he is spending money on fixing up a house for his son and Ruth to live in after they are married.
While doing business in the village, Ethan is passed by Denis Eady driving his cutter toward the Frome farm. Ethan worries that Denis has heard that Zeena has left for Bettsbridge and is going to spend time with Mattie. He is struck by a storm of jealousy. As he passes the church, he surprises Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kissing under the Varnum spruces, the same place where he and Mattie had stood together the previous night. He envies them because unlike him, they do not need to hide their happiness.
As he approaches the farmhouse, he sees a light upstairs and thinks of Mattie in her room, preparing herself for supper. He remembers how much care she had taken with her appearance when she had first arrived, attracting Zeena's scorn.
He passes the Frome gravestones, glancing at one marking the grave of a Frome ancestor with the same name as him. It reads: "Sacred to the memory of Ethan Frome and Endurance his wife, who dwelled together in peace for fifty years." He wonders if the same epitaph might be written over him and Zeena.
When he reaches the farmhouse, Ethan is happy to see that Denis Eady's horse is not in the barn. He finds the door locked and rattles the handle. After a minute, he sees the same light appear under the door as he had the previous day, when Zeena had opened the door. But tonight it is Mattie who opens the door to him and stands with her lamp lifted. Ethan is struck by her youthful beauty and the crimson ribbon she has woven into her hair. She has laid the table for supper, setting out his favorite pickles in a red glass dish. He asks if there have been any visitors, and she playfully admits to one, arousing his jealousy. She explains that she gave Jotham Powell a cup of coffee after he had driven Zeena to the station.
As they draw up their chairs to the table, the cat leaps between them onto Zeena's empty chair, and Ethan feels that Zeena is in the room with them. Mattie asks whether, if there is more snow, it might delay Zeena's return. At that moment, the cat jumps onto the table and knocks the pickle dish onto the floor, where it smashes into pieces. Mattie is terrified of what Zeena will say and begins to cry. The pickle dish had been a wedding present that came all the way from Philadelphia, and Zeena had so prized it that she kept it on the top shelf of the china closet so that no one could use it.
Ethan comforts Mattie and lays the pieces of the dish together on the shelf so that only a close inspection would reveal that the dish is broken. He plans to glue it together the next morning and eventually to try to buy a replacement in a nearby town. Mattie is relieved, and Ethan feels thrilled by her trust in him to rescue the situation.
Nature in Ethan Frome is never neutral, and Wharton's remarks about the elements, the light and the landscape carry a deeper significance. In Chapter 3, Zeena is portrayed with the "pale light reflected from the banks of snow" on her face, making it look "more than usually drawn and bloodless" and throwing her wrinkles into high relief. The image is one of cold and death. At the beginning of Chapter 4, after Zeena has gone, Mattie is shown in the "warm and bright" kitchen. The sun is slanting in through the south window onto Mattie's moving figure and onto the geraniums, brought in from the garden that Ethan had planted for her.
The theme of climate and landscape shaping character is taken up: "There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished." While at first glance this is an optimistic image, we have seen how overwhelming the winters are here, and we wonder whether love can conquer them.
It is no exaggeration to say that Ethan only married Zeena because of the weather. His mother, whom Zeena came to nurse, had died, and Ethan could not bear the thought of being left alone in a silent farmhouse for the rest of the winter - so he asked Zeena to stay: "He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter."
Not only does Ethan's marriage turn out to be the graveyard of his ambition to move to a town and work as an engineer, but in a sad irony, the main reason he marries Zeena vanishes, as "she too fell silent." His trip to see Andrew Hale offers up several incidents that emphasise how, by marrying Zeena, he has missed his chance of happiness. First comes Hale's comment that it is "not so long ago" since he fixed up his house for Zeena, when Ethan feels that the seven years he has spent with her seem a very long time. Then comes the sight of the handsome young Denis Eady driving past in his new fur cap in the direction of the Frome farm and Mattie. Finally, there is the surprised shame of Ned and Ruth as he catches them kissing, though, he reflects, they have no need to hide their happiness, while he has to keep his feelings for Mattie under wraps.
The words on the gravestone of Ethan's ancestor, also called Ethan Frome, have particular resonance for him. The epitaph says the ancestor had lived "in peace" with his wife Endurance, whose name is suggestive of the nature of Ethan's marriage to Zeena. He does not enjoy his life with her, but only endures it. This image of marriage gone sour is contrasted with the romance between Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, which is characterized by hope and joy.
There is a deliberate parallel in the scene where Mattie opens the door to Ethan, just as Zeena had done the previous night. Though the event is identical, the two women are shown as very different from one another. Where Zeena had appeared as wizened and dried-up, Mattie is shown in all her youthful beauty: she has a "child's" wrist and a "slim young throat." Most significantly, she has woven a crimson ribbon through her hair. The color red, denoting Mattie's passion and sensuality, links the ribbon to the scarf that she wore at the dance. This scarf acted as a 'flag' or signal enabling Ethan to mark her out among the crowd. We are led to wonder, as Ethan surely must, what tonight's ribbon signals.
The Fromes' cat has an interesting symbolic role. He leaps onto Zeena's empty chair between Ethan and Mattie, almost as if he were the ghost of Zeena trying to keep them apart. Wharton would certainly have been aware of the cat's role in the mythology of Europeans and, by extension, their descendants who settled in the United States. Cats were the favorite companions or 'familiars' of witches, who were believed to temporarily occupy the animal's body for the purpose of travelling about and doing their work unseen. The Fromes' cat is perhaps responsible for Ethan's uneasy feeling that Zeena is somehow in the room with them. The fact that the cat breaks the pickle dish is significant: the cat is already symbolically linked with Zeena. Ethan feels that the shattered dish reflects Mattie's and his shattered evening together, though it can also be seen as representing their disloyalty in the context of Ethan's marriage (their mutual attraction has put 'cracks' into the marriage). The dish was given to the Fromes on their marriage and ever since then had lain unused on a high shelf, symbolic of Ethan's sterile marriage to Zeena. It is typical of Ethan that after the dish is broken, he lays together the pieces, unable to consign it to the dustbin or to confront Zeena with the truth.
Even when Zeena is absent, she gets her way; he has successfully come between Ethan and Mattie.