Stanley Fish Picks His Favorite of Your Favorite Sentences

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Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 28 2011 4:25 PM

Stanley Fish Picks His Favorite of Your Favorite Sentences

Earlier thisweek, we ran fiveof Stanley Fish's favorite sentences from the history of English . Then we asked you to submit your own beloved lines along with an explication of whatmakes them tick so beautifully.

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Hundreds ofyou took up the challenge. The opening lines to Taleof Two Cities , OneHundred Years of Solitude , and MobyDick got a lot of love, as did the closing sentences of TheGreat Gatsby and James Joyce's "TheDead." The list also featured plenty of Nabokov, Hemingway, Hitchhiker'sGuide to the Galaxy , and at least one vote for Taylor Swift.

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Slate sent Professor Fish a crop offinalists, and here's his professional assessment:

These selections and analyses are so goodthat I can only be thankful that the sentence-lovers who submitted them didn'tbeat me to the punch and write Howto Write a Sentence before I did.

Given these riches, choosing seemed animpossible task, so I went for help to my wife, Jane Tompkins. She too wasbowled over and I was left once again on my own.

I finally settled on three favoritesentences and three favorite analyses, although even as I marked them down, Iwas changing my mind. But here goes.

The three sentences, powerful intheir different ways:

One had to forget because one could notlive with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman withthose eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had beenbrought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection ofphenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one'slips in the dusk of the past. 
- From Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin ,submitted by Brian Siano
 
Then Amnon hated her with very greathatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the lovewith which he had loved her.
- From 2 Samuel 13:15 ( RevisedStandard Version ), submitted by anSTURGEON

The only people for me are the madones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous ofeverything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplacething, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding likespiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop andeverybody goes "Awww!"  
- From Jack Kerouac's Onthe Road , submitted by Disa Grey

 

Fish alsochose his three favorite explications. Here are thewinning analyses:
 

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Reader Dmitri Leybman, from James Joyce's "TheDead"

The sentenceappears as the last and final line in Joyce's novella "The Dead" while alsoconstituting the last written lines in his much-lauded collection ofshort-stories Dubliners . Listenclosely to the sentence. The sibilant "S"s ("soul," "swooned," slowly) form thefirst alliterative sequence and their sounds echo the same sense of sleepovertaking Gabriel Conroy, the last of the novella's many characters to whosethoughts we are given access.  
 
Then Joyce inserts an alliterative and assonantal connection in the verb-adverbconstruction of "falling faintly." The assonance is perceptible in the longdistinct "a" sounds ("faw-lling, fay-ntly). It's yet another link between soundand sense, raising this sentence's level of sophistication to that of writtenverse. Joyce then inverts the verb-adverb relationship as "falling faintly" istransformed into another cluster, only this time it's adverb-verb, "faintlyfalling." The aesthetic and sensory result is a soothing cadence in the soundof these phrases and an establishment of a clever syntactical construction.This construction allows the reader to apprehend the fall of the snow inmultiple, moving perspectives. One perspective ("falling faintly") emphasizesthe way the snow is falling (when adverbs are placed after the verb inEnglish a rare phenomenon they usually heighten attention to themselves atthe expense of the verb they modify), while the second construction ("faintlyfalling") diminishes the importance of the adverb and attunes the reader'sattention to the snow's real, perceptible, and inexorable action, its fallingstate. We should also note that the notion of "fallen" was not chosenhaphazardly. The term has immediate religious connotation and significance everythingfrom the Fall of Adam and Eve to its use in characterizing a member of a churchwho has fallen into disrepute and out of Grace ("Grace" is also the title ofanother story in Dubliners ).  
 
Finally, Joyce visually demonstrates one of the novella's themes (the lack ofdefinitive boundaries between the living, carrying with them the memories ofindividuals known and long gone, and the dead, whose lives, though gone,nevertheless manage to resonate with the living) by connecting the "dead" with"living" via the conjunction "and." This conjunction links "the dead" and"living"'s relationship in the world, emphasizing a sustained connection apermeable duality that exists long after the dead's departure. The word"dead," is especially pregnant with meaning. It denotes a) the novella's title,b) the inexorable state into which the readers are hurtling (Gabriel Conroy,included of course) and c) the finality and conclusion of this particular shortstory and the series of short stories that preceded it.

 

ReaderPeter

, from

, by Joseph Mitchell:


All through the years, nevertheless, along succession of men and women gave him old clothes and small sums of moneyand bought him meals and drinks and invited him to parties and to weekends inthe country and helped him get such things as glasses and false teeth, orotherwise took an interest in him some simply because they thought he wasentertaining, some because they felt sorry for him, some because they regardedhim sentimentally as a relic of the Village of their youth, some because theyenjoyed looking down on him, some for reasons that they themselves weren't atall sure of, and some because they believed that a book he had been working onfor many years might possibly turn out to be a good book, even a great one, andwanted to encourage him to continue working on it.                                             

The first reason to recommend this is the sheer virtuosity of its construction.It takes great skill in coordination and rhythm to shape a comprehensible150-word sentence in any style, let alone one so apparently plain and easy.This is a fanfare without bombast. We have two list structures: the firstbuilds and builds (to "weekends in the country") and then tidily undercutsitself; the second lays a careful foundation of irony and skepticism beforebringing us to the astonishing point of the whole.  
 
Which is the other reason to love this sentence. Mitchell's virtuosity isperfectly at the service of his story. This is the moment when he transformsJoe Gould from a picturesque vagrant into a mystery worthy of book-lengthconsideration, and he does so by letting unshowy reportorial prose quietlygather into a miracle of craft.

 

ReaderGlenn, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's TheGreat Gatsby [ N.B.: Fish also discusses this selection in How to Write a Sentence , "but with less precision."]

So we beat on, boats against thecurrent, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I love howit's so tantalizingly close to iambic pentameter 5 iambs followed by 4 and 1/2.The cadence carries the reader forward in the first phrase with four staccatosyllables. The choppiness of the second phrase brings the current's restraintto life, interrupting the flow of the sentence. The final phrase glides easily,but the missing twentieth syllable leaves the reader anticipating more. One canimagine the novel's last sentence repeating endlessly, beginning again where itleft off. And of course that's the point. The art of the sentence is in itsstructure as much as its words.

 

And withthat, our contest concludes. Congratulations to everyone Fish singled out. Fish asked me to pass ona "Very very very honorable mention to all the rest."

 

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.