“Steinbeck continues to show Elise’s boredom with the conversation with the stranger when he writes, ‘Elise’s eyes grew alert and eager.'”

We are adjured by Jesus not to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing when giving alms.

This sentence is a different case: the left-hand part of the sentence doesn’t know what the right-hand part is doing. Or vice versa.

Surely the writer knows the meaning of the word “boredom.” Surely she also knows the meaning of the words “alert” and “eager.” How she can use the latter to prove the former is beyond me.

It’s not the only example, though, of a sentence that starts out to say one thing and winds up talking about something else, or contradicting itself. Surely this writer lost track of his point halfway through: “Firearms were required in the original colonies because many of the people living depended on wild game for their defense of marauding Indians.” Or maybe the problem there is just an “f” that wandered in and stuck onto the “or.”

Commenting on Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” after I had carefully and clearly (I thought!) led the class through an analysis of the poem’s grammar and imagery: “According to Christian theology, Zion is the Holy Land, and sackcloth was worn to mourn the death of a loved one. The definition of a synagogue is a Jewish place of worship. Obviously these are references to Christianity. ” Not sure if that’s forgetting how the sentence began; it may simply be a conflation of Judaism and Christianity. Many of my students do that; on the other hand, the students at the Catholic institution where I teach tend to make a clear distinction between “Christians” and “Protestants”….

The longest example of lost communication within a text is about Jane Eyre:

The story takes place in the year 1847. The fear of death plagued society. The life expectancy of a person was thirty to forty years younger than today’s statistic of seventy-five. Most of the people seemed to pretend that they were not afraid. Their anger shows that they are more scared than they want to admit. Jane Eyre seems to play the role of a loner. Not because she wants to be, but because nobody wants to be around her.

Setting aside the probably unintentional underlying pun in the statement that the “fear of death plagued society,” the possibly cribbed phrasing concerning life expectancy, the assumption that the writer can recognize seemed pretending, and the glib assertion that anger is a sign of fear, if we try to assume that this paragraph represents a coherent idea we have to conclude that society equates Jane with death. If that was indeed the writer’s intended point, I think we have a whole new critical approach to the novel; if not the intended point, then where WAS the paragraph trying to go, and what derailed it?

I guess this post is, ultimately, about instances when I did NOT, in fact, know what the writer meant, despite a nagging belief that the writer did mean SOMETHING.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““Steinbeck continues to show Elise’s boredom with the conversation with the stranger when he writes, ‘Elise’s eyes grew alert and eager.'”

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