03 January, 2006

Dickens and prose style

Phenomenon almost incredible though distinctly seen, what did he then behold but his own metallurgical Louisa, peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board, and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act!
This, as some of my friends already know, is one of my favourite sentences. The phrasing is modernist: it could easily be mistaken, I think, for a sentence from Ulysses. But in fact it is from Charles Dickens' Hard Times. So what makes this sentence so great?

It is partly a question of register. Hugh Kenner once commented on the first sentence of Joyce's story 'The Dead', from his collection Dubliners: "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally rushed off her feet." The point about this statement is that Lily is of course not literally rushed off her feet, but rather metaphorically. The reason Joyce uses the word 'literally' is because Lily herself would have used it, had she been asked: in other words, Joyce reconstructs her method of thinking while retaining the illusion of the 'omniscient narrator'. It is a subtler technique, in this respect, that the strict 'stream of consciousness' style which Joyce took from Edouard Dujardin. One critic (Joseph Frank, on whose famous essay see also here) traced this technique of suggesting the internal through the external view to the fair scene in Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857).

And yet, here it is in Hard Times, first published in its entirety in 1854, after having been serialised in Household Words. Despite the 3rd-person narration, we have in this sentence an alternation between an expression of Gradgrind's thought-process (compact and exaggeratedly technical, "Phenomenon almost incredible") and a spry evocation of youthful vigour ("peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board", "to catch but a hoof").

To reflect the cuts between interior and exterior, the rhythm of the sentence lumbers and flits accordingly. It is impossible to read the first comma quickly, and equally impossible to read the third slowly. The word 'but' in "to catch but a hoof" propels the voice through the phrase, which then runs into the fine quicksand of "the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act", where the voice is brought sluggishly to a stop.

Beyond this, the sentence achieves beauty through richness of detail: in addition to the general oddness of its idiom, each comma seems unrelated to the last, suggesting a continual renewal of subject; the formation of its protagonists as 'metallurgical' and 'mathematical' seems less preachy than surreal; the strict parallel of Louisa and Thomas, whose actions reflect their attitude upon apprehension by Gradgrind in the following paragraphs.

I like opaque language. This is a perfect example of a sentence which resists transparency: re-reading is required to get the sense, and the phrasing draws the reader's attention to its surface, rather than its subject. To me, this is what literary writing is about: the use of distorted or unnatural idiom (ostranie, perhaps) to resist easy motion through the words, so as to focus the eye on the process of articulation itself.

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