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Chapter 4

Ethan works the next day full of anticipation for the coming night, when he will finally be alone with Mattie. He recollects his parents' illness and the loneliness that had overwhelmed him when they had both become very, very ill and had stopped speaking. Naturally quiet and reserved, Ethan was drawn to people who were talkative and expressive, and when his cousin, Zenobia Pierce, came to care for his parents, the sound of a voice other than his own in the house made him feel alive. Consequently, when they died, he was so terrified of the oppressive silence that he did not want to be alone and immediately asked Zeena to marry him. Not only did she prevent him from being alone in silence, but she also possessed a confident efficiency and a wealth of household common sense that made him feel safe and that prevented silence from taking over the house.
Before they had married, Ethan had wanted to be an engineer and sell the farm so that they could move to a bigger city, but living in a big city would have made Zeena feel insignificant. As soon as she had finished nursing his parents, she immediately fell ill herself, and just as they had stopped speaking, so too did Zeena fall silent as soon as they got married, and Ethan guesses that the bareness of Starkfield winters had driven her to silence.
In keeping with the lie that he had told Zeena, Ethan asks Andrew Hale for an advance payment on the lumber that he had delivered from the farm, but Hale is unable to pay him. Even though he knows that Zeena expects him to collect payment from him, Ethan lies and tells him that he is in no need of money at the moment. Ethan leaves Hale and stumbles upon two of Mattie's friends, Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale, kissing each other secretly while standing in the same place where he and Mattie had been standing a few nights ago. It pains him to realize that Ned and Ruth can openly express their love for each other, but he must keep his love for Mattie hidden. As he continues homeward, he sees Denis Eady riding in his cutter, apparently in the direction of the Frome farm, and he is torn by jealousy as he guesses that Denis is going to visit Mattie. He guiltily dismisses this violent envy, however, when he realizes that a girl as sweet and pure as Mattie is not deserving of such violent thoughts. Ethan then sees the tombstones that mark both of his parents' graves, and he wonders what epitaph would commemorate him and Zeena after they both died.
He arrives home eagerly and finds Mattie dressed in her usual dark dress, but she is also wearing a crimson ribbon throughout her hair, symbolizing the passion and vitality that had been sapped from the house by Zeena's presence. Her absence fills Ethan with a sense of well-being and happiness that he had not felt in a very long time. He and Mattie sit down to dinner, but mere mentions of Zeena's name turn Ethan's stomach queasy, and the natural ease that they usually feel with each other is marred by Zeena's oppressive influence. The cat, who is a favorite of Zeena, interrupts them throughout their meal: it nearly trips Mattie, jumps into Zeena's chair, and finally breaks the precious red glass pickle-dish that Zeena had treasured because it had been a wedding present from Philadelphia. Mattie panics and knows that Zeena will be furious for her for taking the plate out of its secret hiding place, but Ethan comforts her and tells her that he will take care of it immediately the next day. He fits the broken pieces together on Zeena's top shelf so that at first glance, one could not have guessed that the plate had been broken. When he tells Mattie that he will be able to take care of the broken dish, he is filled with a pride and confidence that makes him feel powerful and strong, in contrast to the powerlessness and inferiority that he feels when he is with Zeena.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Introductory Note
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10


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