Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light . . . drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its rings of crimping-pins.

This quotation, from the end of Chapter 2, is the strongest physical description that we have of Zeena Frome, and it is not a flattering one. The phrases combine to support a picture of Ethan’s wife as unfeminine, dried-up, overly thin, and generally unappealing. Female beauty is traditionally associated with curves and images of fertility, yet Zeena is all hard angles and protruding bones—with her flat breast and tall figure, she seems stripped of all sexuality, all romantic allure. Moreover, she appears very old. Her aged features bespeak her inner weariness as well as her demand for respect and her lack of playfulness. Her unattractiveness and premature agedness contribute to the novel’s sharp opposition between Zeena and Mattie: Zeena Frome is cold and unappealing, a woman prone to long silences, who is always described as speaking in a “flat whine,” while Mattie Silver is a picture of youthful vigor and beauty, with a sparkling personality and name to match. In the contest for Ethan’s devotions, all that Zeena has on her side is convention and her husband’s inertia. Ultimately, however, these prove enough to prevent Ethan from fulfilling his dreams and passions.

The language of this passage evokes not only ugliness and agedness, but also sickness and death. Zeena’s thinness may result in part from her chronic illness. Moreover, when the narrative draws attention to the “fantastically” exaggerated “hollows and prominences” in her face, its “ring of crimping-pins,” it is evoking more than mere ugliness: it conjures the picture of a skull, with its gaping eye sockets and its streamlined silhouette of a head. Thus, not only does Zeena represent coldness in opposition to robust sexuality and fertility; here she is the picture of death itself, in opposition to life in general. With her, the description implies, day-to-day existence is nothing more than a living death. Escape from her and her household is thus more than a question of indulging a whim; it may indeed be a matter of spiritual survival.