Ethan returns home and goes upstairs to help Mattie bring down her trunk. He finds her crying; she thought that he might have left for good, and that she was never going to see him again. He tries to comfort her, and helps her take her trunk down the stairs. At lunch he announces that he is going to take Mattie to the station himself. Zeena argues with him, but he insists vehemently that he'll be taking her. Claiming he has business in town, he plans to leave three hours before Mattie's 6 o'clock train.
They set out at three, and Ethan takes advantage of the extra time to take Mattie on a long ride. They go to Shadow Pond, where he and Mattie enjoyed a church picnic together a few months earlier. Ethan takes Mattie down to a quiet spot in the woods. They talk sweetly to each other, more open in their affection than ever before. The pond, with its happy memories, becomes too painful. They return to the sleigh. As they ride on toward town Ethan asks what Mattie intends to do. Prospects aren't good, and though Mattie pretends she'll manage it seems clear that hard times are ahead of her. Mattie brings out the letter Ethan began to Zeena; she found it by accident. Ethan says, in anguish, that he can't leave the farm. But he asks Mattie if she would come with him if he could. She admits that she would, but their talk changes nothing.
As they near the edge of town, Ethan persuades Mattie to come sledding with him; it's their last chance to go coasting down the hill. The find a sled and go down, despite the fact that it's twilight and the light is the most confusing of any time of day. The first trip down is exhilarating; Ethan steers well, and they reach the bottom safely. They climb up the hill and realize fully that soon they will never see each other again. Both begin to cry, unable to leave each other, telling each other that they can't bear to be apart. Mattie asks Ethan to take her down the hill again, straight into the big elm. She does not want to live without him. They get into the sled for a second ride down, Ethan in front this time. He won't be able to steer, but the track will carry them down straight into the tree.
They go down the hill, but they don't die. Ethan comes to, disoriented. He is in unbelievable pain. He realizes he is holding Mattie; she, too, is still alive. He hears the horse whinnying up at the top of the hill, and he realizes that the horse needs feeding.
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.
We are back with the narrator of the opening. He is entering Ethan Frome's house, and from afar he has heard the harsh sound of a woman complaining. In the kitchen two old women are sitting, one tall and severe, the other slight. The tall woman gets up to get supper on the table. The slight woman moves her head without moving her body; she is paralyzed. She has a witch-like stair and a nagging, terrible voice. Ethan introduces the women to the narrator: the tall woman is Zeena. The cripple is Mattie Silver.
Later, the narrator is talking with the widowed Mrs. Hale (Ruth Varnum, before she married Ned). Mrs. Hale is surprised that Ethan invited the narrator in for the night. Not many go into the Frome home, on account of Ethan's pride. Mrs. Hale visits there one or two times a year. She tries to pick a day when Ethan is out, because she cannot bear to see the pain on his face.
On the night of the accident, Zeena came right away to the minister's place, where the two of them had been taken. As soon as Mattie could be moved, Zeena had her brought back to the Frome farm. Mattie has been there ever since; she had nowhere else to go. Zeena has cared for them both for twenty years; somehow, she found the strength, even though at one time she believed she couldn't take care of herself. All of them are hard, bitter people. Mattie is hateful and difficult, and although Zeena usually bears it, at times the two of them quarrel viciously. At these times, the look on Ethan's face is heart-breaking.
Mrs. Hale confides in the narrator that she thinks it would have been better if Mattie had died. The novel finishes with one of the more memorable closing lines of American literature, spoken by the widow with conviction: "And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."
The narrator's outside view brings the Fromes' poverty into sharp relief. He remarks that even by the standards of the rural poor the Fromes' kitchen is squalid. And when we see Mattie Silver, now a paralyzed and hideous hag, we are reminded that she had nowhere else to go. Ethan Frome is partially a reaction against portraits of rural living that romanticized poverty and farming. Wharton shows again and again that poverty is soul-destroying. It has taken away Ethan's chances at happiness again and again. It forced Mattie to stay with the Fromes after the accident, and it has led to all of them ending life as stunted, hateful people.
We see the theme of time as destroyer, waster. Before, the novel has given us the contrast between buildings as they were in the past and as they stand now; we have also seen the painful contrast between the young Ethan and the old lame man he becomes. But Mattie's transformation is the most horrible change we have seen. She is transformed from a lively, pretty girl to a hideous and bitter crone. Her re-entrance as an old cripple is one of the novel's most chilling moments.
Zeena's transformation is an interesting and ambiguous development. Some have read it as showing that Zeena possessed untapped reserves of strength and compassion; however, this reading runs up against some significant counter-evidence. The first is the narrator's description of her: "She [Zeena] had pale opaque eyes which revealed nothing and reflected nothing" (91). Hardly the description of a saint. Zeena has hardened to fit her circumstances; Mrs. Hale says that Zeena is not the one who suffers most, because she no longer has time to suffer. Just as she was able to care for Frome's mother, she finds it in herself to care for Ethan and Mattie. But her care is not marked by compassion or tenderness; this is care that comes because there is no other choice. And given what Chapter 7 revealed about Zeena's character, her transformation can be read very darkly. She can now afford to care for Ethan and Mattie because she no longer needs to worry about losing Ethan. If her earlier hypochondria was a way of controlling Ethan, it is no longer necessary. He is lame and needs her; in a similar way, Mattie no longer poses any kind of threat. All is stable at the Frome farm; there is no longer any way for Zeena to lose control of the situation.
We finish with the graveyard that made such an impression on Ethan in his youth. The tombs are more than a reminder of mortality; Mrs. Hale says that the three living at the farm are like people already dead. They will continue to live in this way for a while yet; Harmon Gow assured the narrator that the Fromes are a hardy breed, and Ethan will probably live to be a hundred. We are reminded of the tombstone that bore Ethan's name, recording how a previous Ethan had lived with his wife "Endurance" for fifty years. Those fifty years become a grim promise. Ethan must live on, continuing to eke out a living on his farm's poor soil. The theme of determinism finishes here, with three people trapped together for the rest of their lives. Ethan will stay at the farm because he has no choice; he is as trapped and lifeless as his ancestors in the Frome burial ground.