The couple is helped by Mattie, Zeenas cousin. Ethan is intensely attracted to Mattie but he is duty bound to serve his wife. Zeena is suspicious for Mattie has been living with them for over a year and she has sensed the mutual attraction that Ethan and Mattie have. In defiance to the betrayal going on in her house, Zeena hires a different helper. Ethan of course, objects but in the end, he still obeys his wife. Before Mattie is able to leave town for good, she suggests that they commit suicide by sleighing directly on the path of an elm tree.
Unfortunately for them, the smash-up doesnt prove to be fatal because of Ethans hesitation before the impact. The failed suicide attempt causes Mattie to be paralyzed and Ethan almost suffering the same fate. Before the smash-up, Ethan was already in a position that is very similar to where he is at the end of the novel. If anything, hes even in a poorer state than where he was before. As described by the condition of the house, Even for that part of the country the kitchen was a poor-looking place (Wharton, 1911, p. 63).
It means that the reversal that happened to Ethan, isnt exactly a reversal. He comes full circle, after having high hopes and dreams for a new life with Mattie, he ends up where he started, in that poor house with his wife. The reversal (and return trip) that would happen to Ethan is foreshadowed in Chapter IV; Ethan passes by a graveyard where his ancestors are buried. He sees on the epitaph his name, Sacred to the memory of Ethan Frome and Endurance his wife, who dwelled together in peace for fifty years (Wharton, 1911, p.27).
Ethan wonders whether the same words would be place on his Epitaph. The real reversals that happen in the story are with Zeena and Matie. These two cousins would change roles by the end of the novel. Before the smash-up, Zeena was the sickly person that is being tended to by her husband and her cousin Mattie. But in the span of twenty years or so, Zeena would recover from her illness and she would end up to be the one who takes care of Mattie, or at least let her live in the house.
Mattie would end up paralyzed after their mishap, or failed suicide attempt about twenty years ago. Now she is the one who needs to be taken care of. Before the smash-up Mattie was a perfectly healthy and beautiful woman, Ethan is not the only one who had eyes for her as evidenced by Eadys invitations toward her during the opening chapters of the novel. But after the smash-up, she is reduced to be nothing more than a body on an armchair, unable to move with the freedom that she had in the past Under her shapeless dress her body kept its limp immobility (Wharton, 1911, p.
63). The smash-up had caused reversals in the novel, Ethans hopes of being with Mattie for the last time is crushed along with Matties spine. Mattie who used to be a healthy and beautiful woman becomes a motionless body. Zeena on the other hand, before the smash-up was a sickly person, but twenty years after the incident, she is revealed to have recovered from her illness.
Wharton, E. (1911). Ethan Frome. New York: Scribners Publishing.