The novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton tells the story of Ethan Frome and the tragedy he faces in his life. The story mainly focuses on the relationships between and among Ethan, his wife, and his wife's cousin, with whom he is in love. Wharton uses different literary devices to develop the plot, including irony as one of the most effective. The use of irony in the novel, especially in the climatic sledding scene, greatly adds to the development of the tragedy.
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 bottom Wouldn't it have been too awful? They"re 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 Mattie's 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 elm So "t we"d 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 Zeena's face, Ethan's 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, Zeena's face appears to Ethan. "But suddenly his wife's face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside" (72).