The sled ride which Ethan and Mattie take at the end of the story is full of irony. They often talk of going sledding together. In the first conversation that the two have in the novel, sledding becomes one of the first topics. Mattie relates an incident, “Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottomWouldnt it have been too awful? Theyre so happy” (19).
Coasting on the hill is a spirited pastime for young couples in the small town. The elm offers a bit of a scare and a chance for the young men to show off their skill. Ethan and Mattie simply want to enjoy this amusement. The chance for a sledding ride does not come until the night Mattie is supposed to leave. Their sorrow over Matties departure changes their motives concerning sledding.
They see a collision with the elm as a way to avoid parting. Mattie suggests, “Right into the big elmSo t wed never have to leave each other any more” (71). The irony is that sledding, an innocent pastime, becomes a tool the lovers use to try to escape their situation. Another ironic element of the sledding ride is the appearance of Zeenas face, Ethans wife, during the scene. Ethan and Mattie are speeding down the hill towards the elm to what they believe will be their deaths.
In one of the last instants before they reach the tree, Zeenas face appears to Ethan. “But suddenly his wifes face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside” (72). Ethan seems not to have thought about the effects his death would have on his wife, but this sudden image of his wife suggests that he feels guilty. It is ironic that he uses phrases such as “sullen self-absorption” and “evil energy” to describe his wife (50). Yet, she is the last person he imagines before he reaches the elm.
This moment is one last time that he must brush her aside, as he attempts to break free from Zeena forever. When Mattie is to be sent away, Ethan and Mattie grow desperate looking for a way out of their impossible situation. They decide that it is better to die in a sledding accident together than live their lives apart. Ethan hesitates slightly, “But in a flash he remembered the alternative. She was right: this was better than parting” (72). Ultimately, they both survive the crash, though both have permanent injuries.
Mattie is confined to a wheelchair, and Zeena helps care for her. Ironically, the crash they intended to end their lives only makes their lives worse. Mattie returns to live with Zeena and Ethan in a cold household. Ethan becomes the primary caretaker of the two women, who continue to cause suffering in his life. Mrs. Hale says, “But sometimes the two of them get going at each other, and then Ethans faced break your heart.
When I see that, I think its him that suffers most” (76). After the accident, the Frome household is caught in a “living death,” rather than released from its tensions. The tragic aspects of the novel are further emphasized by the use of irony. Rather than simply writing the unfortunate episodes of the story, Wharton reminds the reader that these situations have the capability of producing favorable results. This contrast between the possibility of a good ending and the resulting tragedy creates the illusion of an even greater tragedy.