Analysis Pages

Vocabulary in Ethan Frome

Vocabulary Examples in Ethan Frome:


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"Zenobia..."   (Prologue)

Zeena’s full name might be an allusion to Zenobia, the queen of the Palmyrene Empire in 3rd-century Syria CE. Zenobia was most known for leading a revolt against the Roman Empire and infamous for her swift decision-making without considering the concerns of Rome. The name echoes the portrayal of Wharton’s Zeena as being the primary decision-maker in her marriage, often with a complete disregard for Ethan’s wishes.

"cherry-coloured “fascinator”..."   (Chapter I)

A “fascinator” is kind of scarf that women often wrapped around their heads that was common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ethan uses the scarf as an easy way to keep track of its wearer, a woman to whom he has taken a swift liking. Note the color choice here, as “cherry” or “red” have typically had strong associations with love, desire, heat, etc.

"tramps..."   (Chapter II)

In this context, the term “tramp” most likely means “beggar” or “drifter.” Note the tone of surprise when Ethan states, “What if tramps had been there–what if…” While he seems scared of the possibility of “tramps” having taken the key, he seems to be much more frightened of the latter “wild thought”—possibly the realization that it could have been Zeena who moved the key intentionally.

"larches..."   (Chapter II)

A “larch” is a type of pine tree that sheds its needles in the winter. Note that the sight of these winter trees clearly indicates Ethan’s home and the end of his alone time with Mattie.

"hired girl..."   (Chapter II)

The terms “hired girl” and “hired man” were used in North America to refer to people who were hired as domestic workers, typically in farmhouses. They helped around the house and performed light farming duties. A non-gendered phrase with the same meaning is “hired hand.”

"runners..."   (Chapter II)

A “runner” in this context is another type of sled. This type of sled would be much cheaper than the type that Denis Eady is using, and thus, his “cutter” distinguishes him from the rest of the inhabitants of rural Starkfield.

"empty expanse..."   (Chapter II)

Ethan often describes the wintery surroundings using terms like “empty” and “void.” Recall too, that in the previous chapter he used the physics term “exhausted receiver” to describe the winter air. These words help illustrate that nature, and arguably nature’s most frightening season, is often a void for Ethan, something that both perplexes and overwhelms him.

"pantomime..."   (Chapter II)

“Pantomime” means to convey one’s meanings and emotions through gestures rather than words. Ethan is attempting to determine Mattie’s feelings toward Denis Eady from afar.

"cutter..."   (Chapter II)

In the United States and Canada, a “cutter” means a lightweight horse-drawn sleigh that customarily sits two people on one seat.

"“jolly” the Worcester girls..."   (Chapter II)

While today, the term “jolly” usually means “happy,” in Ethan’s time it also meant to “win over affections”. The author suggests that Ethan’s endeavors were fruitless, as he was “heavy and loutish,” or “uncouth.”

"calico wrapper..."   (Chapter III)

“Calico” is a basic, undyed, and unfinished cotton fabric. A “wrapper” is a casual type of long dress. Again, note the lack of distinction and color Ethan uses to describe his wife, even though he notes that she is wearing something different on this day. She never wears strong colors, such as red, like Mattie. We see her in basic browns, greys, and whites.

"stenography..."   (Chapter III)

Stenography is the process of writing speech in shorthand (using abbreviations) with a stenotype, or stenograph, machine. Stenography is still used by court reporters today and is considered the most efficient way of writing long dialogues. Keep in mind that it is suggested that Mattie could have had a career as a stenographer had she been able to pursue it.

"died of the disclosure..."   (Chapter III)

Here, “Disclosure” means “that which is revealed”. In this case, the disclosure reveals to Mattie’s mother that the money that her husband inherited from the once-thriving “drug” business is gone. When Wharton writes that Mattie’s mother “died of the disclosure” then, she means that she died from the shock of this reveal.

"“drug” business..."   (Chapter III)

Notice that Wharton places the word “drug” in quotations marks, suggesting that the business that Mattie’s father inherited might be crooked or questionable. Consider further, how Mattie’s father’s “drug” business furthers the motifs of medicine, sickness, and the loss of promising careers. Ethan forfeits the prospect of a promising future career by ending his studies prematurely due to his father’s illness. Mattie misses opportunities to hone useful skills due to her father’s failing “drug” business and her illness which forces her to get a job in a department store instead.

"cupolo..."   (Chapter IV)

The term “cupolo” is actually referring to what is called a “cupola,”—a small dome that adorns the roof of a home. Cupolas are sometimes installed on the top of barns for ventilation, which might be why Andrew Hale mentions it as a “joke,” seeing as it is the dead of winter and it might seem silly for someone to ask for an advance on their paycheck to pay for one.

" turning “queer.”..."   (Chapter IV)

While today the term “queer” has a different meaning, in this story it most likely means “unwell.” Ethan uses the word to describe Zeena’s state of mind in comparison to his mother’s towards the end of his mother’s illness. His mother “fell silent,” but not due to the physical effects of her illness—she simply chose not to. Ethan compares this silence to the winter and the loneliness of Starkfield farm life and thus, worries that Zeena is “turning queer.” However, note that Zeena states that she is quiet because Ethan does not listen to her.

"volubility..."   (Chapter IV)

If a person is “voluble” they are talkative and garrulous. To say that Zeena provided the home some “volubility” at one point contrasts significantly with how she is described now. This is also the first time that we are given some context as to why Ethan was originally drawn to Zeena.

" convivial loiterings..."   (Chapter IV)

The term “convivial” means “light-hearted and joyous” and “to loiter” means to stay idly in a place with no particular reason to do so. Ethan Frome feels he does not have the luxury of leisure time, that he is always dutiful to the things that burden him.

" repercussions..."   (Chapter V)

In this context, the word “repercussions” is being used to describe the “reverberation” of the sound of Zeena’s name. But notice that the word “repercussions” can also mean “unintended consequences of a particular event or action.” Considering this is the first time that Ethan and Mattie “had ever spoken so openly” of Zeena’s feelings about Mattie, it is likely that the word “repercussions” has a double meaning here—as there could be repercussions for this conversation.

"spectral..."   (Chapter V)

The term “spectral” is an adjective that means “like a ghost.” The movement of the rocking chair is ghostly in that it is as if Zeena is still sitting in it, watching Ethan and Mattie. Even when they are alone, they are not truly alone. They are haunted by guilt.

"squalid..."   (Chapter VI)

“Squalid” means “extremely dirty or shabby.” Note the change in tone from when Ethan first enters the home under the impression that only Mattie is home. This contrasts with the moment he realizes that Zeena has already returned. Suddenly his surroundings in the home that brought him so much joy just a few hours prior are “dirty” and “dingy” to Ethan.

"self-derision..."   (Chapter VI)

“Derision” is a term that means “contempt,” “ridicule,” or “mockery.” “Self-derision” then, is to treat oneself with derision. Ethan is mocking himself for even entertaining the notion that Zeena’s arrival might be delayed so that he would have time to fetch the glue to fix the pickle-dish that he and Mattie shattered.

"traveller's joy..."   (Chapter VI)

“Traveler’s Joy” is a fast-growing vining shrub with flowers that appear to be light and wispy. It is interesting to consider why Ethan compares Mattie’s hair to this plant, because it is a highly invasive species and rapidly grows over other plants, preventing their growth.

"affability..."   (Chapter VII)

To show “a sign of affability” is to show “agreeability” or “congeniality.” It suggests that one is good-natured in their intentions. When Zeena uses Mattie’s nickname “Matt” here, it is one of the first times that we witness Zeena being nice to Mattie. Although Mattie is related to Zeena, Zeena has never shown her this kind of familial affection—or at least we have not seen it as readers. Zeena might be more open about showing her affection because she feels guilty about “kicking her out.”

"ingratiatingly..."   (Chapter VII)

The word “ingratiatingly” means “deliberately meant to gain favor.” The cat is being charming in order to receive praise and food from Zeena. Remember that the cat has served as a kind of “watchdog” for Zeena while she was away—or at least as a constant reminder of Zeena’s ghostly presence in the home. Wharton’s drawing the reader’s focus on the cat suggests a connection between Zeena and the animal, especially considering Zeena’s praise for the cat’s behavior.

"antipathy..."   (Chapter VII)

The term “antipathy” is a “deep feeling of dislike or hostility.” Note the many ways that Ethan voices his “antipathy” towards Zeena in this paragraph: Ethan “looked at her with loathing” and “abhorred her.” Such words make the tone of this passage hateful, brooding, and dark.

"pauper..."   (Chapter VII)

A “pauper” is “a very poor person” or someone who is “without any means of support.” In this context, the word has a negative connotation, as Zeena then suggests that Mattie has been living off of their funds without doing her fair share.

"almshouse..."   (Chapter VII)

An “almshouse” is a house that is built for poor, sick, or elderly people to live in. Zeena comments that she can just go live there because, after all, “there’s been Fromes there afore now.” She is not being serious, and she said in order to “taunt” Ethan during their fight.

"recrimination..."   (Chapter VII)

A “recrimination” is an accusation that one makes in response to an accusation from someone else. Ethan has accused Zeena of exaggerating illness as a “plot” to “foist on him the cost of a servant,” and Zeena accuses Ethan’s mother for being the cause of this illness in the first place.

"People struggled on for years with “troubles,” but they almost always succumbed to “complications...."   (Chapter VII)

Ethan suggests that Zeena started using the term “complications” to describe the extent of her sickliness from the medical advice she was given. Until this point, Zeena has been told that she has “troubles” rather than “complications,” which Ethan explains is not a step in the right direction. He says that when a doctor tells someone that they have “complications,” it is a basically a “death-warrant.” This wording is ultimately what drives Ethan to believe that Zeena is not exaggerating about her bad health anymore.

"consecrated formula,..."   (Chapter VII)

“Consecrated” means “something that has been declared sacred.” In Ethan’s mind, while the traditional routine is confining and suffocating at times, it also offers him a sense of routine. Zeena’s refusing supper disrupts this routine by not upholding her part of the “sacred formula.” If Ethan feels the pressure of performing traditional routines in order to follow his “duties,” Zeena should too.

"lumbago..."   (Chapter VIII)

“Lumbago” is lower back pain that can range from mild to severe. Here, it seems that things are finally working out for Ethan. Ethan hoped that he could “get Mrs. Hale’s ear” for the money rather than Mr. Hale, suggesting she might be easier to sway as Ethan had not asked her for money yet. Luckily (for Ethan) Mr. Hale happens to come down with lumbago and Ethan gets his wish.

"ebullition..."   (Chapter VIII)

The term “ebullition” is the “action of bubbling or boiling.” Note that this is the second time Ethan has meant to ask the Hale’s for money. The first time, Ethan was too prideful to state why he needed the money. However, this time Ethan’s pride is overtaken by desperation as he hopes that he can use the money to buy a ticket out West for him and Mattie.

"jogging down the hill..."   (Chapter IX)

Notice the abundance of active and fast-paced wording here. Wharton starts using words like “sprang,” “jogging,” and earlier, “flung,” that signal Mattie and Ethan’s haste to spend as much time together as possible before it dwindles away. This wording contributes to the overall “dizzying” tone of the passage—the two are desperate to make the most of their last moments together.

"disease of the spine..."   (Epilogue)

This passage describes Mattie as having a “witch-like stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives.” We can infer that “disease of the spine” means that the crash has left Mattie paralyzed. Consider also, the drastic change in the description of Mattie’s appearance otherwise. She has “hair as grey” as Zeena, “her face as bloodless as shrivelled,” and “swarthy shadows” which “sharpen” her nose. Recall how Mattie was described before, always with bright and warm colors that illustrated her lively nature. This spark is gone; she is as “grey” as Zeena now.

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