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In Chapter Nine, the realization that Mattie reciprocates his passion makes Ethan reckless. He is tortured by the happiness that lies outside of his reach. But the sled ride is not a carefully considered choice. Mattie and Ethan give in to passion, but the result is not freedom. Instead, they ruin their lives. The theme of illicit passion is not given a happy spin in Ethan Frome. When Mattie and Ethan succumb to it, they destroy themselves. Passion is not a liberator; Ethan and Mattie are not in control of their feelings. Passion is only another force that acts on man, robbing him of agency.
The sled ride is a symbol for Wharton's conception of free will and fate, a conception shaped by Naturalism. Although Ethan has some power in steering the sleigh, the track carries them down on the final run. Ethan steers the sled to some extent, but gravity and the shape of the hill drive them down into the elm. Man's freedom exists within a very narrow range of options. In the opening, we already learned that Ethan had a terrible accident, and so the event seems all the more fixed. Wharton has been foreshadowing the accident all along. We also know that Ethan is still going to be alive at the time when the narrator arrives in Starkfield, and so we immediately know that their suicide attempt is going to be unsuccessful. The suicide attempt is the final and most terrible failed plan of Ethan Frome. It caps off a long string of aborted plans and frustrated wishes, and this time the consequences are tragic.