The plot of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome appears to be characteristic of a typical love story, with the young lively girl, and the man who wants to give her the world. However, as the story progresses, Wharton begins to derail from the conventional plot of a romance novel. All the events within the tale take an unexpected turn for the worst, ultimately sending a message about fate and happiness, making Wharton's use of irony the reason Ethan Frome is considered a work of literary merit.
Wharton's novel includes many archetypes indicative of a classic fairytale. Literary critic Elizabeth Ammons discusses the use of the witch, the silvery maiden, and the honest woodcutter," which parallel with Zeena, Mattie, and Ethan. However, unlike in most fairytales, Ethan and Mattie never seem to be able to overcome the obstacles that thwart their love. Their fortune always seems to run out too rapidly. An instance where irony is first seen within the novel is during Mattie's and Ethan's first night alone together. With Ethan's wife, Zeena, out of the picture on this evening, it seems that there should not be anything deterring the two of them from being with each other. The night begins perfectly, with Mattie preparing Ethan's favorite meal for dinner. It is logical to assume that this evening would be the first time the two lovers are intimate with each other. However, as Ethan and Mattie begin to get comfortable, disaster strikes when the cat breaks Zeena's cherished pickle dish. Immediately, Mattie starts to cry, and her tears "pour over" [Ethan] like burning lead, " (Wharton 70) which disrupts their previously flawless time together. This occurrence brings about feelings of anxiety and worry from Mattie, ultimately putting a strain on the night. Ironically, what was supposed to be a magical evening ended with stress and uneasiness. .
The irony placed in this situation demonstrates the need for people to take control of their own happiness.