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Leftovers: A Classic Sentence
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Another helping of yummy leftovers. Here is another blog entry I started then stalled out on:

If you don't mind a literary classic *Spoiler* (if there is such a thing) here is what I consider an all but perfect sentence, from Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.

I had intended to point out how brilliantly the sentence unfolds a foreboding and ultimately tragic story in just a few perfectly chosen words, even without reference to its context. The beginning sets the scene, or two scenes actually, and there is a presentiment that trouble is at hand. A sentence that starts with the word darkness has to make one wary. And note particularly that it didn't "get dark," the city and field weren't simply dark, the darkness didn't fall. It "came down" on the field and city.

And then we learn that "Amelia was praying for George." Uh oh. You don't pray for anyone unless they're in trouble. Still, there's hope. Prayers do get answered.

Unfortunately, as we immediately discover, George "was lying on his face." Worse and worse. Still, Amelia was praying.

Then we learn that he was lying on his face "dead."

Has anyone ever done a better job of hitting readers with the full weight of the word "dead"? Thackery knew he didn't need to to bewail the tragedy of unanswered prayers and the end of all hope, or belabor the fact that Amelia's life has been irrevocably altered. All those things are implicit in the word "death." Presenting it by itself, the word is infinitely more effective than any explanation the author could have given.

That's what I intended to say, but I guess I had in mind my contention that the strongest sentences end at the dramatic high point. (See yesterday's entry) The word "dead" clearly is the terrible climax of the sentence, so why tack on "with a bullet through his heart"? Am I not contradicting my previous blog? Isn't the phrase surplusage?

I think not. The description of George's wound is matter of fact, not in the least graphic, and yet, at this point, gratuitous (purposefully so). Even those few words are far more than we want to hear. We haven't even had time to come to grips with his death. To me that simple "bullet through his heart" conjours more horror than any detailed, anatomically correct, description of murder wounds ever could.

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