When Zeena begins to suspect Ethan and Mattie's attraction, she hastily arranges for Mattie to leave the household, claiming that Mattie is bad for her supposedly deteriorating health.
Desperate, Ethan resolves to cheat one of his own clients and friends, Mr.
Hale, by requesting an advance on a lumber shipment that he knows he will not be around to deliver. Hale praises Ethan for his loyalty to Zeena, Ethan is guilt-stricken.
Unable to bear the thought of living without one another, the couple agree to steer the sled into the massive elm tree at the foot of the hill.
It is better to die in one another's arms, they decide, than to live apart.
Life in Ethan's hometown of Starkfield, Massachusetts is one of grinding poverty, and Ethan knows his actions will financially devastate the Hales, as well as Zeena, whom he would be leaving essentially destitute.
His and Mattie's own financial futures would be bleak as well.
But this is more than a simple story of a love triangle gone wrong. Ethan is trapped in a miserable marriage to an angry hypochondriac of a wife, Zeena, who is more consumed with her fictitious ailments than with her husband's happiness.
Mattie Silver, who lives with Ethan and Zeena as a sort of housekeeper and caregiver to her cousin, is like a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stifling environment of Zeena's incessant criticisms and complaints.
Time and again, the novel depicts Ethan toiling in the land, trudging through an ocean's depth of snows, and breaking his already broken body against the harrowing landscape, in a pathetic attempt to eke out a living for himself and his dependents.
This use of setting is characteristic of the naturalist movement, which emphasized the role of environment in shaping human destiny, and portrayed the human race locked in a Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest, living in a land indifferent and inhospitable to them.