Some Other Things Sentences Can Do (Part 1)

“They are, he thought, the hardest in the world; the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive and their men have softened or gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened.” Ernest Hemingway, in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

He’s talking about “American women”, and it seemed pretty clear to me, when I first read it, that the author is speaking ‘over the story’  here, and directly to the reader. He’s flattering a group of his readers. OK honestly, he’s buttering up his readers. When I read it, I felt like this cheapened the whole enterprise, but it’s hard to argue with success.

But this is something a sentence can do — something other than describe a scene, describe a character, advance a plot.  There’s lots of these other things, I’m coming to recognize.  I’m doing a whole different kind of reading now, trying to identify the purposes of even individual sentences. I am going to try to list several of these here, and illustrate each with a quote from an established writer.  Here we go!

“Penguins. Flightless and clumsy on land. You know the feeling.” Jay McInterney, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

The sentence I’m pointing at here is the third one, but I wanted you to have the other two, for context. (The bit doesn’t work otherwise.)  This is the opposite of the prior example.  Here, the sentence isn’t flattering the reader, it’s identifying with and commiserating with her.   

“How could they know he swallowed glassful after glassful to comprehend a harsh and private beauty?” E. Annie Proulx, in THE SHIPPING NEWS

This single sentence illustrates the humanity of what is otherwise unlikeable cipher of a character. It reifies him for us. I think it’s fair that even the very minor characters in a novel have names, a line or two of direct quotes, and a few words that confirm their inner lives and make them real. 

“Here we are, Shank thought (or maybe said) outside the hotel, waiting out yet another john delayed by his guilt and his doubts and the time it takes to check his morality at the door, driving north, praying for forgiveness, taking a rain check on his deeper principles while the dull fields fly eagerly past the bug-speckled windows.” David Means, in short story The Spot, in the book of the same name.

I love this sentence because it’s so encompassing, it’s amost a story in itself. Here, this sentence is describing the character, the setting, the situation (really the whole shmear) but this sentence is in no way a neutral observer.  What Shank is doing, and by extension what the sentence is doing, is implicity judging him (the john) and his actions. 

“With so many other forces at work in the world, brutal, sly, deceiving, unstoppable forces, what could be more foolish than staking your life on an ephemeral feeling, no more than an idea really, a fancy, the culmination of which is a clumsy bit of nakedness, a few minutes of animal grunting and bumping, a momentary obliteration of thought, of conscience?” Alice McDermott, in CHARMING BILLY

This sentence is kind of a head fake for the readers.  It’s very passive-aggressive. It’s enunciating exactly the opposite of what we want the character to feel. Love, romantic love, is a fabulous thing to stake your life on, of course — in fact, there’d be no story here without it. 

“As for herself, she felt that she had driven to a grave and gotten out of the car but left the engine running.” Joy Williams, from the short story Congress, in HONORED GUEST

I love this. I just love this. This sentence is describing a feeling for which there is no existing name. It’s scratching an itch I wasn’t aware I’d had, up until the moment I’d read it. Joy Williams rules, by the way.    

“Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.” Michael Chabon, in THE WONDER BOYS

This is one of my favorite sentences ever.  I’d highlighted it in the book many years ago (like several of the sentences here) and never forgotten it.  In a single sentence, he’s defined the character of the speaker and the subject and described their relationship in a unique, thrilling fashion.  This sentence is a killer. 

“As if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. […] Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.” J.R.R. Tolkien, THE RETURN OF THE KING

Horns, horns, horns.  That’s not a sentence at all; it’s a fragment. And then there’s another one, almost immediately after. Tolkien is the consummate grammarian.  Here we are, eight-hundred-some pages into his trilogy, and suddenly he writes a fragment?  But it’s intentional, we realize, and it’s perfect. The narrator is overwhelmed, and we are too, when we get to this point. Sentences can break the rules, if they do so artfully, and in the service of story.  

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” Charles Dickens, beginning A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

I don’t even know what that is.  I’m still parsing that, after all these years. But it seems correct for the narrator, and  it’s hard to forget once you’ve read it.  

“Good deeds are ever-bearing fruit.”  (?)

For completeness, here is an example of a sentence as mnemonic device. Not sure I have ever seen it used in a work of literature, but that just means it’s a tool waiting for the right hand.  (This sentence is used by musicians to remember the order of major scales as one goes around the circle of fifths.  One sharp = key of Gmajor, two sharps = Dmajor, etc.)

Please, readers, feel free to add your favorite sentences in the comments.