Moderation, as the ancient counsel has it, is best in all endeavors, and so we are well advised to remind ourselves from time to time what real purpose all the detail and technicalities of grammar—and the hard work necessary to understand them—serve in our pursuit of better thought and expression. To write or read a passage well involves more than getting the gist, the general idea; it involves, in fact, the appreciable ability to account for the reactions we have upon reading a sentence or passage. And that means we must be able to understand the craft that presents the ideas to our minds. We must begin with our feelings but end with an understanding of what caused them.
Some very good advice along these lines is to be found in Janet Gardner’s Writing about Literature (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009). This brief and excellent work, suitable for high school, college, and independent student alike, has this importance guidance on how to proceed in understanding more fully a sentence or passage—whether we’ve read it or written it—which has caught our attention:
A text may strike you as sad or lighthearted, formal or casual. It may make you feel nostalgic, or it may make your heart race will excitement. Somewhat more difficult, though, is isolating the elements of language that contribute to a particular tone or effect. Look for characteristic stylistic elements that create these effects. Is the diction elevated and difficult, or ordinary and simple? Are the sentences long and complex, or short and to the point?… Paying close attention to linguistic matters like these will take you far in your understanding of how a particular story achieves its effect. (pp. 60-61)
So what would “paying close attention to linguistic matters” look like if we read closely, for example, this brief paragraph from Ernst Hemingway’s short story “The Three-Day Blow” (I quote it here from 50 Great Short Stories, ed. by Milton Crane, Bantam, 2005):
The road came out of the orchard on to the top of the hill. There was the cottage, the porch bare, smoke coming from the chimney. In back was the garage, the chicken coop and the second-growth timber like a hedge against the woods behind. The big trees swayed far over in the wind as he watched. It was the first of the autumn storms. (p. 17)
This is the second paragraph in Hemingway’s little story, and the five sentences that make up this early passage have together constructed a world, a rural scene, wherein the story, about to begin, will unfold. What do we sense about this world, or better, how do we ourselves feel in this world that Hemingway has conjured? Literature asks us to let an author take us somewhere, not to be swept away to another world, but to be carried aware of ourselves elsewhere. Reading these sentences we might very well feel watchful, curious, perhaps even a little anxious about those autumn storms in the last one. Predominantly, though, I would think watchful, because very, very little happens in this passage, and most important to notice, absolutely nothing happens to anything else. No real action, no conflict, has arisen yet, and so we wonder watchfully why we are where we are: what is about to unfold?
All of this constitutes our reactions to the passage, but if we stop there in our reading, we are left with—just our reactions, which, as Gardner suggests, is not to go far enough in reading literature intelligently and appreciatively. We cannot, nor should we ever try to, gainsay our feelings, but without being able to account for how it is we feel what we feel in reading a passage (or in reacting to any form of art), we have no way to judge whether what we feel is only what we ourselves are bringing to the literary world from our personal history, or what, in fact, the author has put there for us to experience by provoking that feeling. We have been invited somewhere by the author, and to rest satisfied with our reactions without tying them to the text is to presume to tell the host how to give his own party.
If we say, then, that in reading this paragraph, we feel more watchful than surprised, more calm through the first few sentences but a little more anxious through the last two, we can account textually for these reactions by seeing that there is not one transitive verb across the entire passage. Transitive verbs have direct objects, which means that the subject of a transitive verb is aiming the action at something else: something is affected, conflict arises, consequences ensue. But here? What action there is (smoke coming from the chimney, trees swayed) has no object; these verbs—even the verb in the last clause of the fourth sentence, watched, meaning here to be attentive or vigilant—are all intransitive, not transitive, and so portray action that just rolls on like waves in the middle of the ocean, no shore to reach and collapse upon. That decided grammatical construction has a very real effect on us, its readers, and so we can objectively and justifiably conclude that there is a reason for our feelings of watchfulness, that we are not too quickly reading into a passage what we want to see, but seeing what is really, constructionally, there.
To read closely like this, as Gardner says, is a matter of “how a particular story achieves its effect.” The question how is answered by the terms and workmanship of the craft, the art, which is before us. Our reactions and feelings answer the question what, and every what, every effect, ultimately has a cause, a how. When those two, cause and effect, are kept in balance, in moderation, we can avoid the extremes of either pure subjectivity or pure objectivity, and so find ourselves somewhere better between the two in a richer, more meaningful world than just our own.