Arriving back home, where a sleigh has come to take away Mattie’s trunk, Ethan enters the kitchen to find Zeena reading a book of medical advice. When he asks about Mattie, Zeena tells him that she is upstairs packing. Ethan climbs the stairs and enters her room, finding Mattie sitting on her trunk in the middle of the emptied room, sobbing. She confesses her fear that she will never see him again. He reassures her, pulling her close to him and placing his lips on her hair. They are interrupted by Zeena, who calls for the trunk to be hurried down. Ethan carries it downstairs to the sleigh, and as he and Mattie watch the horse and rider depart, Ethan resolves that he, not Powell, will drive Mattie to the train.
At dinner, Ethan is unable to touch his food, while Zeena eats heartily. After the meal, Powell asks what time he should return to deliver Mattie. Ethan explains that he won’t need to come to the farm at all, as Ethan himself will be delivering Mattie to the station. This sudden change of plans does not sit well with Zeena, who tells Ethan that he needs to attend to the stove in the spare bedroom. A bitter exchange ensues, and Ethan firmly insists on taking Mattie in spite of Zeena’s protests.
Filled with nostalgia and regret, Ethan prepares his horse for the journey. Returning to the house, he finds the kitchen empty; he eventually locates Mattie in his old study, where she explains that she had wanted to take one last look around. Zeena has retired to her bedroom after dinner without a single word of goodbye to Mattie. After casting one last glance around the kitchen, Mattie is ready to join Ethan, entering the sleigh and starting down the hill.
Ethan decides to take Mattie the long way around, along Shadow Pond, in order to relive a handful of memories. Ethan stops the sleigh in a pine wood and helps Mattie down. As they walk together through the wintry landscape, they remember their encounter of the previous summer at a church picnic on this very spot, where Ethan found a lost gold locket of Mattie’s. Lingering in the glow of their reminiscence, Ethan longs to reach out to Mattie and declare his affections openly, but she rises to go before he can make his move.
They drive on under a setting sun, and Ethan asks Mattie about her plans for the future. She outlines a vague notion of finding work in a store. Ethan declares his devotion to her, and she responds by showing him his aborted letter of goodbye to Zeena, which he had left in his study and which Mattie had then found. Ethan is exhilarated by her discovery and asks if she has the same feelings for him that he does for her. In despair, she dismisses his question as useless, tearing up the note and casting the fragments into the snow. However, moments later, she quietly confesses her own love for him.
Ethan explains the impossibility of his situation, and Mattie insists that he write to her. Worried that she will eventually marry, Ethan asserts that he would almost sooner see her dead, and Mattie tearfully agrees with his sentiment. As they drive, they come across a group of boys with sleds, which reminds them of their long-harbored plan to go sledding. Suddenly, Ethan proposes that they embark on their sledding adventure right away, reassuring Mattie that the hired girl can wait for them at the station. Sighting a sled beneath the Varnum spruces, they make their way over to it and climb aboard.
They finish their first run smoothly, though they narrowly miss the elm that stands at the foot of the first slope. As they climb back up the hill together, Ethan is struck with the thought that these are their last moments in each other’s company. At the top of the hill, Mattie breathlessly asks Ethan if this was the same place where he once saw Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum kiss each other, and she embraces him in a kiss of their own. As they say their goodbyes—still refusing to accept them as goodbyes—and kiss again, the church clock strikes five. Unable to bear the prospect of parting from Ethan, Mattie solemnly requests that Ethan steer the sled so they coast directly into the elm tree and die together. Ethan’s initial astonishment quickly gives way to his own desire to escape a future without Mattie. Locked in a lover’s embrace once again, Ethan holds Mattie close and feels her sobbing, as the train whistle sounds.
The two pile onto the sled together, with Ethan sitting in front, and Ethan sets the sled into its fatal motion. As they hurtle down the hill, Ethan feels confident that they will hit the tree, but at the last moment he swerves unexpectedly, as he seems to see Zeena’s malignant face before him. The sled glides off in a second of uncertainty before he rights it on its course again. They then hit the elm.
Ethan, dazed from the impact, hears the faint noises of what he takes to be a small animal in pain, and he makes a weakened effort to attend to it. After removing a heavy mass from on top of him, he reaches out to feel what he discovers to be Mattie’s hair and face. Rising to his knees, he bends down toward Mattie’s face, seeing her eyes open and hearing her utter his name. He moans softly back to her. Hearing his horse whinny at the top of the hill, he is brought back to the world and the duties that face him there.
From the beginning of this chapter the sense of despair and desperation begins to mount, with time running out for Ethan and Mattie. In this somber mood, the sense of unavoidable doom grows, and the narrative builds up to its dramatic climax. In his emotional strain, Ethan finds himself seemingly guided by the invisible force of destiny: Wharton describes him feeling as though his heart were tied with cords being tightened by the hand of fate. Due to this “unseen hand,” Ethan relinquishes responsibility for his own actions, pursuing his errand with Mattie as though directed by a greater force. In a heartbeat, Ethan’s notions of ethical responsibility have dissipated, and his entire sense of accountability vanishes along with it.
The dynamics between Mattie and Ethan change subtly now as Mattie, for the first time in the book, seizes the initiative in their interactions: she takes the bold step of revealing her knowledge of Ethan’s forsaken plan to elope with her and the even bolder step of confessing her own longtime love for Ethan. Yet the declaration brings no real happiness: now that we know that Ethan’s passion is not one-sided, Mattie’s imminent departure takes on an infinitely more tragic dimension. At the same time, Mattie’s daring seems to bring out a dangerously reckless quality in Ethan, as he gives in to a sudden impulse and proposes the sledding adventure.
In light of the book’s final circumstances, Ethan’s inner thoughts in this scene create a sense of bitter irony. Poised at the top of the hill for their first run, Ethan’s playful reassurance to Mattie that he could go down the hill with his eyes closed foreshadows their impending deliberate crash. Moreover, Ethan’s wish to keep Mattie with him forever will attain a terrible form of realization when Mattie is paralyzed in the ensuing crash and forced to stay with the Fromes indefinitely. Similarly, Ethan’s thought that their ascent up the hill will be the last time they walk together also bears a grave dramatic irony: they will never walk together again, as it turns out, not because Mattie is leaving him, but because she will soon be unable to walk at all.
Part of the genius of Ethan Frome is the way that the sledding run works as a metaphor for Ethan’s inability to make the decisions necessary to solve his dilemma. Sledding is an activity in which the rider submits to the forces of gravity and friction: a certain amount of steering can alter the course, and some riders steer better than others, but the rider can always choose to give in to momentum and simply coast. Giving in is exactly what Ethan does in agreeing to Mattie’s suicidal wish: he frees himself of the burdens of his situation and makes the decision to coast, putting his life and hers in the hands of fate. In many ways, this notion of coasting also applies to Ethan’s general approach to life: believing himself to be imprisoned by external contingencies—by the landscape, financial circumstances, and social conventions—he relinquishes responsibility time and again.
So, too, does the sledding run fit perfectly with the nature of Ethan and Mattie’s love, which is illicit and reckless, and so seems to call for a reckless conclusion. This ending feels destined to the characters as well as to the reader: in considering Mattie’s death wish, Ethan reflects that Mattie seems to be speaking for fate itself. It is as though he has no other choice but to comply with her bold proposal. In keeping with his mystical outlook, Ethan comes to believe that the natural world around him has somehow sanctioned their decision: as the sled hurtles violently toward the elm, Ethan observes that the elm seems to be waiting for them, as though it knows what will happen.
But the sledding run, as it turns out, is not an escape of any kind. Wharton leaves it ambiguous whether Ethan’s swerve, brought about by his vision of Zeena, is what prevents them from dying or whether even a head-on collision is not enough to kill them. In either case, the world has conspired to prevent Ethan and Mattie from escaping, and now the book’s dominant themes reemerge as strongly as ever: the conflict between human desires and the external circumstances, be they geographical or social.
Wharton had provided the first foreshadowing of the smash-up at the outset of the story, when the narrator heard vague descriptions of Ethan’s unfortunate accident from several reluctant village sources. Combined with the later references to sledding accidents, Ethan’s pronounced disfigurement in the opening pages of the novel clues the reader in to Ethan’s impending tragedy. Nevertheless, the grip of Wharton’s rustic romance is so strong as to fog the memory of even the most perceptive first-time readers; we read of the disaster in near disbelief, and no amount of preparation seems adequate to dampen the emotional impact of the literal collision.