Foreshadowing of the accident begins in Chapter VIII of Wharton's Ethan Frome as Ethan forms a letter to Zeena explaining that he is leaving to start a new life out West. However, Ethan halts his writing as the realization comes to him that his farm is heavily mortgaged and he will have an impossible task to pay this and make a living for himself and Mattie both if he goes. Then, too, he considers that Zeena would have nothing. With despair, he concludes,
There was no way out--none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.
Certainly, this thought with the final word of extinguished is suggestive of an ending. When Ethan is determined to take Zeena to the train despite her protestations, he finds himself distracted as he performs routine actions.
Then, descriptions of nature act as foreshadowing. As they linger at a place in the woods, they stop at "a shy secret spot, full of the same dumb melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart." Here, too, his eye lights upon "a fallen tree trunk half submerged in snow." As they walk, "the darkness descended with them, dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs." [hemlock is a poison] After they come near the end of the village,
They had reached the crest of the Corbury road, and between the indistinct white glimmer of the church and black curtain of the Varnum spruces the slope stretched away below them without a sled on its length.
Here the mention of the church and the "black curtain" suggest a funeral. And, that there are no other sleds hints at the fact that there are no witnesses to see Ethan and Mattie's idea of sledding. Mattie asks if it not too dark, and Ethan laughs with contempt for nature. Even though
it was the most confusing hour of the eving, the hour when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in a blue that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances
he portentously insists that he can go down with his eyes closed. Mattie tells Ethan, "What's the good of either of us going anywheres without the other one now?" She says she would rather be dead, and Ethan replies that he almost would prefer that. As they stand talking, "The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence"--like death. Mattie's insistence makes her "the embodied instrument of fate."
Once on the sled, Ethan sees the big elm, foreshadowed at the beginning of the chapter with the mention of "the fallen tree trunk"; but at the same time, Ethan's boast that he can go down with his eyes closed becomes fulfilling as his attempt to "fetch" the elm fails.
Clearly, Edith Wharton's highly acclaimed use of imagery and symbolism create a wonderful tale, while they also serve as foreshadowing for the fateful accident that creates the tragic irony of the novella's end.