A lot of the action in Ethan Frome isn’t really action at all, at least not in the Vin Diesel sense. On the surface, a lot of the second chapter, for example, is simply Ethan and Mattie walking through the snow talking to each other. The reader’s interest is kept not just by the dramatic tension of the situation (we know, or suspect, that his wife is waiting at home unhappily) but also by the way Wharton dramatises their exchanges and the feelings of the characters as they talk:
Her wonder and his laughter ran together like spring rills in a thaw. Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and brought out, in a growl of rapture: “Come along.”
We get a keen sense of Ethan’s feelings during the moment described here, but there is no ‘he thought’, ‘he felt’ ‘he was excited’ or suchlike phrases, which would quickly get tedious if we came across them every other sentence; instead, feelings and sensations are turned into nouns or noun phrases: the sense of…, the effect, a dazzling phrase, a growl of rapture.
We looked at nominalisation and some of its applications in a previous post, and its use is effectively shown here. It allows Wharton to turn the inner feelings of her characters into a landscape just as enchanting as the New England countryside they’re walking through. How much harder it is to do this elegantly without these nominalised constructions:
Ethan sensed that he had done something arch and ingenious. To make this last longer he groped for something dazzling to say, and growled rapturously: “Come along.”
Here is another passage of Wharton’s with the nouns and noun phrases relating to feelings and sensations underlined:
These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome. The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches. The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone. Now he thought she understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired. To-night the pressure of accumulated misgivings sent the scale drooping toward despair, and her indifference was the more chilling after the flush of joy into which she had plunged him by dismissing Denis Eady.
The utility of noun phrases is self-evident here: without them the passage would become awkward and more difficult to understand. The use of varied noun phrases requires a wide vocabulary, lest the repetition of ‘he thought’ and ‘he felt’ be replaced by the repetition of ‘the sense that’ and ’the feeling that’. But the variety of nouns on display here is impressive – alterations, accumulated misgivings, the flush of joy – and Wharton has more where they came from.
I should say, by the way, I’m not doing down verbs. Over-reliance on noun-phrases can bring problems of its own, for example, the overuse of the verb ‘be’ and other very common verbs like ‘had’ and ‘make’. Often a verb construction is most eloquent and dynamic, as illustrated by the central sentence of the above passage:
Now he thought she understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired.
Describe your feelings on an important occasion in your life. Use a variety of noun phrases, as well as some verb constructions.
Image taken from this website. It looks like a coal tit to British eyes, but is actually a chickadee, native to North America.
P.S. If you’re interested in pictures of birds in the snow (and who isn’t), I know fellow wordpress blogger Sethsnap has recently done a series of them. Chickadees included.