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.