When we are reading an established author, someone whose language we can rely on as being in the main standard and not experimental, it can often be helpful to think about what the writer didn’t do, what choices he or she could otherwise have made in matters of grammar and style, and what effect would have then resulted. Doing so brings us to a closer appreciation of what we’re reading, and keeps our attention on the many possibilities of form and structure we have for our own compositions.
Aldous Huxley was an English writer of the last century, probably best known for his novel Brave New World. He wrote prolifically, and among his many works was a short story entitled “The Gioconda Smile.” In a scene of tension where one of the chief characters is about to reveal her thoughts to an unsuspecting other, Huxley writes this fine set of sentences:
A huge cloud was mounting up the sky, and there were distant breathings of thunder. The thunder grew nearer, a wind began to blow, and the first drops of rain fell.
The weather is tempestuous, as is at times the human heart, and these two sentences succeed in projecting an interior emotional storm large onto the world, whose weather is in keeping with the interior climate of at least one of the characters in the scene. A storm is gathering, conditions are assembling themselves, and we can see in the grammar of the first sentence how this impression of impending movement was drawn. The verb of the first clause, was mounting, is intransitive, which means its action is not directed to an object but extends unobstructed, and so we feel determined force. Without a direct object (the phrase up the sky is not a direct object but an adverb), no termination of the action of mounting, of climbing, is felt, and so the result is a dominating advance. The subject that is moving so, a huge cloud, is threatening in its name alone (it is unsettling not to be able to see the extent of a threat, as the edge, or end, of a huge cloud might lie beyond the horizon), and when that dark and massive thing is paired with a verb in the progressive aspect, was mounting, we can only find ourselves a part of tension writ large. The progressive aspect of a verb, formed when some form of the verb to be is combined with the present participle, connotes movement, progress, a picture that something is underway and yet to find its resolve.
It is in the second sentence, though, that we can wonder about another choice the writer had—not to improve his original sentence, but to exercise the elements of writing for ourselves. We see three independent clauses there, and the conjunction and connects only the second and third assertions. The subjects of the first two clauses, the thunder and a wind, both comprise an article and an unmodified noun, and the result is a simplicity of direct power: it is enough that thunder and wind are named for us to realize their potential power together, and that mounting apprehension, like the huge climbing cloud, is relieved a little when the last of the three clauses does not follow the same grammatical composition, but disperses itself, like the raindrops, with a few more words: now the subject, drops, is modified by an adjective before it (first) and an adjectival phrase after it (of rain). We should note as well that the gathering movement we can’t help but feel in this second sentence too is built in good measure by the increasing length of the three clauses: four words, then five, then six (absenting the conjunction and).
That movement is the point of the passage, and would not have been so well secured had Huxley chosen to compose the second sentence in what is called a segregating style, that is, not one compound sentence of three clauses, but three individual simple sentences: The thunder grew nearer. A wind began to blow. And the first drops of rain fell. Such a design would have been a lesser choice because what is really all of a piece, all a single threat—thunder and wind and rain—would have been discretely separated, each brought to our attention as an entity in its own right, thereby lessening their collective force. The passage would have lost its acceleration, and the tumult it was meant to portray would have weakened before its issue in the emotional revelation about to unfold.
There is always the danger in such close reading that we lose the forest for the trees, that the analysis of form becomes an end in itself. But it need not be, and we can know we are doing enough of it, but not too much, when we can objectively see more deeply into the picture of what we’re reading. Understanding form then opens up a richer world of meaning we might not have suspected at first, and that is always to the good.