*blog posts: a quick explanation*

As a reader and writer of literary fiction, I find it worthwhile to study sentences. I love the layers and textures present in carefully crafted syntax, the way a single sentence can tilt the axis of the Earth and light the world anew. This blog contains some sentences that have—in structure and content—struck me. Please scroll down for the complete collection of posts.

Note: This blog is protected by “Fair Use” copyright laws. The purpose is educational, and the posts include quotations from a very small portion of the larger artistic work. All quotations are clearly attributed. 

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“Freeman Gottschall Experiences One or Two More or Less Improbable Events” by Joshua D. Graber c. 2016 (pages 153-181 in Glimmer Train)

This short story centers on the random events that impact the protagonist Freeman Gottschall, who was a student of the famed Edward Lorenz, known in popular culture for chaos theory and the “butterfly effect.” Although the story is short, it nevertheless references big themes such as the theodicy problem, determinism, mental illness, and interconnected systems (to name just a few). The plot, which is wonderfully absurd, consists of events that depict Freeman trying to understand causation, make sense of the 9/11 attacks, save his dog, recover from his divorce, and reunite with his daughter.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “He jumped at the sound of the splintering and began to act with the frenzy of an ambushed soldier at the realization that a bullet had just whizzed by, near his head; although he would consider, during calmer moments, that bullets do not announce themselves except at the report of the firearm. There is only origin and termination; alpha and omega; initial condition and future event, depending on which terms we wish to use to couch it” (153).
  • “He drove like a drunkard, not that he was especially erratic, but his mind was occupied with tasks other than driving, which was something his brain controlled with little effort, leaving him space for daydreaming: attention drifts elsewhere, tasks at hand dissolve into broadly swept reality, which to the daydreamer seems a finely manicured dream” (154).
  • “As natural catastrophe to the Vatican or animal instinct to the fortune teller, a truly random event is to the mathematician potentially damning—or it is to one of Freeman’s stripe: he the student of Ed Lorenz, he the researcher of chaos, he the mapper of double pendulums. Sometimes he dreamed of those long nights in his office searching for exactitude, for explanations, for a certain largesse provided by the abstract and theoretical equations, but he discovered only paranoia. His equations suffered from too much noise” (156).
  • “Dr. Ojo Spectral spent a good deal of time attempting to diagnose Freeman, and at great length had failed to arrive at any definitive clinical category that could contain his wild brain” (157).
  • “He spoke slowly and his voice sounded to Freeman like America: made of gravel and lubricated with whiskey” (159).
  • “Against Dr. Spectral’s advice, which slithered through his mind—an electric eel through a dark ocean, presenting itself here and there—Freeman spoke. ‘Well, what if what they call God is just a genesis, and what they call ordination is just a natural flowing of events, and nothing happens that hasn’t been set down since, say, the Big Bang?” (160).
  • “When she showed him her feelings, he felt that she was extending him small gifts of trust, little treasures held out on her dainty hands that he stored away, brought to mind when she was colder to him, little pieces of hope for him to hold away, to revisit, as though these moments were letters written from some faraway place” (169).
  • “The news program recounted the recovery of the body of a priest who had given last rights to a dying firefighter only seconds before he met his own death, being crushed by the falling body of a man who’d decided to hurry his fate” (174).
  • “During the drive, Freeman saw a man walking near a strip mall, crying for no obvious reason. It was as if sadness had been distilled into a liquid and the reservoirs filled with it, flowing from water mains into faucets, ice makers, shower heads, garden hoses, making everyone drunk on sorrow, causing men and women to walk slowly, deliberately, viewing every piece of their lives through the lens of the week’s earlier tragedy” (175-176).
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Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue c. 2016 (382 pages—Random House)

Set primarily in NYC during the subprime mortgage crisis, Mbue deftly shows the intersecting stories of two very different families: the Edwards and the Jongas. The Edwards are stoic Americans who want to maintain their lifestyle and keep up appearances. The Jongas are passionate Cameroonians who are seeking opportunity and upward mobility in the States. Questions concerning value(s)—both monetary and moral—are central to this novel. Both families and both countries are depicted in complicated and even contradictory ways, which is what makes the novel seem more realistic than didactic. Both Clark Edwards and Jende Jonga (whose biggest break comes when he becomes Edward’s chauffeur) are hardworking men who want to provide for their families, yet both men misread their wives’ (Neni and Cindy) emotional states on numerous occasions. In the end, after Clark loses his job and Jende faces deportation, it is the women who assert themselves and take the most dramatic action.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “These days she sang more than she had in her entire life. She sang when she ironed Jende’s shirts and when she walked home after dropping Liomi off at school. She sang as she applied lipstick to head out with Jende and Liomi to an African party: a naming ceremony in Brooklyn; a traditional wedding in the Bronx; a death celebration in Yonkers for someone who had died in Africa and whom practically none of the guests knew; a party for one reason or another that she’d been invited to by a friend from school or work, someone who knew the host and who assured her that it was okay to attend, since most African people didn’t care about fancy white-people ideas like attendance by invitation only. She sang walking to the subway and even sang in the Pathmark, caring nothing about the looks she got from people who couldn’t understand why someone could be so happy to go grocery shopping” (31).
  • “The silence in the apartment was like a celestial choir, the perfect background music to her study time—no one to disturb her, interrupt her, ask her to help do this or please come over right now. No sound but the faint noises of Harlem in the nighttime” (53).
  • “He looked out the window at the people walking on Amsterdam Avenue. None of them seemed concerned that the day might be one of his last in America. Some of them were laughing” (60).
  • “She dragged herself through the city, from work to school, to home, because she needed to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if their lives hadn’t just been opened up to unravelment. She couldn’t summon a smile, sing a song, or string together two thoughts without the word ‘deportation’ finding its way in there, and yet she propelled herself forward the morning after the news, dressed in pink scrubs and white sneakers for a long day of work, an overloaded backpack strapped on her shoulders so she could study at work while the client slept” (62).
  • “Most people were sticking to their own kind. Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest” (95).
  • “The city that summer overflowed with the hot and thirsty: panting on subway platforms, battling the sun with wide hats and light clothes, rushing to scaffoldings for shade, dashing into department stores not for the sales advertised on windows but for the AC” (108).
  • “From the moment they shook hands in the portico until Cindy left for her dinner, the madam was enveloped in an air of superiority, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back as she walked in long strides, slowly enunciating every word when she spoke, as if she had the right to take as much of the listener’s time as she wished” (115).
  • “Both men were silent again as the car crawled through the midtown madness of tourist shoppers and harried commuters and street vendors and city buses and yellow cabs and black cars and children in strollers and messengers on bikes, and too much of everything” (205).
  • “After a shower and a dinner of Chinese leftovers, he had sat by the window in the common area, wrapped in his twin comforter and looking outside: at the weather so dull; at the people so colorlessly dressed; at the happy day slipping away so quickly and crushing him with longing” (240).
  • “She wanted to say that in spite of their circumstances, they should be happy because there was so much happiness in the world and because all of humanity was one. She wanted to say all this and more, but couldn’t, because she wasn’t sure if she believed it” (254).
  • “Gone were the moments of tender embraces in the kitchen, minutes of stolen passion in the bathroom while the children slept. They were now in two separate universes, each certain of his or her rightness and the other’s senselessness” (332).
  • “He would never become an American Wonder, one of those mbutukus who went to America and upon their return home spoke with laughable American accents, spraying ‘wannas’ and ‘gonnas’ all over sentences. They strutted around town wearing suits and cowboy boots and baseball caps, claiming to understand very little of Cameroonian culture because they were now too American” (355).
  • “In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. / They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers” (361).
  • “On the cab ride to the airport, she stared out the window in silence. It was all passing her by. New York City was passing her by. Bridges and billboards bearing smiling people were passing her by. Skyscrapers and brownstones were rushing by. Fast. Too fast. Forever” (379).
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The Mare by Mary Gaitskill c. (441 pages—Pantheon)

“The Mare” is told chronologically from multiple (first-person) perspectives, a structure which drives the narrative. The main protagonist, Velvet, is a mixed-race girl from a tough neighborhood in New York who forms a deep, yet complicated, relationship with a childless white woman named Ginger. At Ginger’s house, Velvet learns how to ride horses and forms an emotional attachment to an abused mare—“Fiery Girl” (renamed from “Fugly Girl” by Velvet). The renaming of this horse is significant, as all characters are attempting to heal and remake themselves by overcoming past trauma.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “For a second, everything was hard and clear and pounding beautiful” (6).
  • “The singer’s voice is thin and fake, but it’s pretty, and somewhere in the fakery is the true sadness of smallness and failure and believing in things that aren’t real because that’s the only way to get through” (11).
  • “At night Paul and I would both sit on her bed and read to her and her eyes would go from alert to enchanted to blurred, sweet and private as she slowly stepped down to sleep” (45).
  • “I saved that moment. I did the right thing. I was the adult. But I never knew from one moment to the next if I was or not. Being this kind of adult was like driving a car without brakes at night around hairpin turns. My body tensed and relaxed constantly. I was always nearly ruining dinner or forgetting to pick something up. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to drink—really wanted to, for the first time in years. Was this what parenting was like 24/7? My God, how did anyone do it? How did her mother do it, in a foreign country, in a bad neighborhood where she didn’t speak the language?” (62).
  • “It was barely light when I woke up the next day. I didn’t wait; I got dressed and walked over. There was mist in the air and it was soft, and the sky was soft too, but with bright clouds. There was so much space, and green too, green and green” (116).
  • “That night I dreamed of horses running together like they were water with a brain that could decide where to go. Except you could see their faces and their feet and tails coming out and then going back into the water of themselves” (148).
  • “The woman had a powerful body, a hard, blunt voice, and an insane Her eyes were simple mentally, but emotionally snarled, aggressive and shrewd . . .” (169).
  • “[B]eing on the mare happened on another planet, somewhere beautiful but with outer space all around it. I couldn’t even tell it to anybody. I was locked away from everybody. I couldn’t even beat on the door because there was no door” (185).
  • “And on that horse I saw the world: sky, trees, buildings, streets going in different directions. My life going in different directions” (189).
  • “I remembered his eyes when he was holding Brianna and looking at me over his shoulder, sharp like the arrow in the valentine, sharp in my heart, my real heart, like in the science chart of your body, the heart-muscle in the dark of my body. Soft/sharp. Love” (259).
  • “They were all younger than Velvet, much younger, with quick, animated faces, confident that they belonged and were loved above all, and they flashed around Velvet like she was a rock while right in front of me she became one. My heart sank” (277).
  • “It was so gentle, like something young springing from inside age, smiling and sweet like I was never able to be in middle school, or high school, or when I knew this man nearly two decades ago; in that foolish moment, the hard glass of my girlhood became flesh as if for the first time” (296).
  • “I went into Penn Station to get a hot chocolate and walked around drinking it. I stared at the jumbled food nooks and windows filled with cheap shit: crazy-print panty hose, boxes of chenille gloves and hats, teddy bears, glass roses, Empire State knickknacks, magazines crammed with exhausting opinions and worthless pictures it cost thousands of dollars to take. Pretzels. Pizza. Squashed sandwiches and big, biliously iced cookies. Lights buzzing, music pumping, people yelling orders and wiping surfaces; so much honest effort put into so much ugliness, everyone worn out by it but still doing their job to push it out the chute. All of it probably overrun by rats at night. A crazy guy pointed at me and laughed” (307).
  • “The train came in screaming. We go on it pushing. Huge tired people pushed in between me and my family and I faced the flying tunnel out the back door of the last car, hiding my hit face” (317).
  • Cheating. Of course I know why they call it that. I hate it, but I know. So much of what happens between people is comparable to a game. There is a deep, soft core that everyone longs for, too deep for games or even words. But to get to that, you have to play and play well. Art, society, relationships, simple conversation—I couldn’t understand how to do any of it. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I tried, and when I was young and good-looking it could at least seem like my failure was actually an interesting artistic version of some special game” (360).
  • “It’s dead now, my adolescent longing, and even so I can’t help but press it against my cheek one more time, hoping to bring it alive again” (381).
  • “For a strange and active moment I felt my house close around me—water pipes and wires and slow-speaking wood with insects living in it, wallpaper and rugs and furniture, emotions and odors, the air beating with thoughts—all of it, all of me so far away from the girl on the other end of the phone, even though she had slept and ate and cried here” (396).
  • “She didn’t cry. But I could feel the pain beating inside her body like it was too big to get out without breaking her. It made me hold her tighter, and she hardened against my grip” (409).
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Deep Singh Blue by Ranbir Singh Sidhu c. 2016 (243 pages—The Unnamed Press)

Dark and poignant, this book explores issues of bias, bigotry, love, and violence. The protagonist, Deep Singh, who was born in the US, feels the force of dislocation and dis-belonging—caught between his parents’ homeland of India and his current life in 1980s, conservative NorCal farm country. While his bother suffers from mental illness and his mother and father continually fight, Deep seeks to escape with his complicated muse, a married woman named Lily.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A winding drive took me along blank boulevards with their cross-eyed strip malls and condos screaming in a pastel-colored language all their own. I punched the lighter, waited for it to pop, and lit a cigarette” (1).
  • “When they arrived, they knew less about America than I had ever known about India, which meant they knew practically nothing. They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written—the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. It was history with a small h—the kind that happens to ordinary people, not to countries—that tossed themselves like a handful of pebbles across the map of the world” (2).
  • “I turned and looked around the diner . . . There it was, in everyone’s face, the unspoken sorrow of daily life. My own small troubles deserted me and I was filled with an odd sorta love for these strangers and the daily hardships of their lives” (4).
  • “Was this Spinoza’s perfect world? I wondered that night as I sat watching Dad grunt at the television. For that’s what the dead philosopher meant: that they world is perfect, exactly as it is. There was only one response, Spinoza wrote, to such perfection: moderation, plain and simple, as passive regulation of emotion in the face of all of life’s upheavals” (20).
  • “I wondered then if this was some kind of test—a love test—and if it was, whether I’d passed it or not. A wild thrill ran up my body as I nosed the car through the afternoon traffic, then out onto increasingly deserted boulevards heading east. People had money on this side of town, and the lawns unrolled to the curb like great green tongues. If you took a wrong step around here, you were liable to be swallowed up and eaten” (27).
  • “The heavy bass beat of a Frankie Goes to Hollywood number started up and I was left trembling in the frenetic cathode ray half-light of the video. An indentation on the sofa remained where Jag had sat, as if a ghost Jag were still there, staring at me, whispering that word. [Die]” (38).
  • “The terror I’d expected to feel, lying out in the open, exposed to the elements, prey to an animal or criminal, didn’t materialize. Something different happened. A feeling of security wrapped around me. There I was, at the mercy of the universe. Never before in all my life had I felt more protected” (44).
  • “If you looked at Jag sideways, out of the corner of your eye, there was always the desert prophet visible rattling around inside him, the wild man in the wilderness preaching to tumbleweeds and prairie dogs, speaking equal measure of gloom and salvation” (48).
  • “A couple times Lily and I caught the matinee at the dollar theater and I felt, in that closed-up, dark hall, the ferocity of her physical presence, as if I were being sucked down into the heart of a dark star” (68).
  • “His name was a minefield, and I kept stepping on the trigger. I was also useless at pronouncing my own, which no one had told me before. I was glad when we reached home and I could lock myself away and think about Dylan Thomas and my future life as a drunk” (76).
  • “I marveled at how we seemed to circle certain spots: the same row at the dollar theater, the same booth at the diner, the same winding roads through the hills. It was as if we were spinning on an actual orbit and our lives were nothing but an expression of its track through the heavens” (85).
  • “As Jag’s silence deepened, Mom’s prescriptions grew in number and the bag of pills I brought home grew larger, with longer and stranger names, odder shapes, and brighter colors. / I tried a couple and spent the day sailing through a gauzy haze. Everything felt soft and pastel colored. I wondered if this was how Mom now saw the world. If felt like being continually pummeled with a fist made of cotton wool” (128).
  • “Lily and I would found our own nation, hidden in the heart of this world, fight for it and die if necessary. / If I squinted I could almost see it, a shadowland in all this light, beyond the highways and the flattened towns, high up in the mountains, or near the ocean, not even a dot on a map, but somewhere placeless, out of tune with the world around it, where even orphans might find a foothold” (152-153).
  • “The old poets, the dead ones I would come to read, wrote that tragedy is born from a defect in character, that our fates are twinned with the deepest impulses of our souls. I would learn something different. The birth of tragedy is silence, and the birth of silence is failure to see” (156).
  • “Weeks later, as I wandered lost, an outcast on the desolate northern coast, little more than an orphan, I’d think back to that afternoon as I retreated out of the diner and ask myself if it was my rage that day, and in the days to come, that left me blind” (157).
  • “I pulled away and stood, and a sudden, surging hatred blasted through me. It had been him, all these years, around whom we had all circled, the great silence around which our own petty silences were built” (170).
  • “I passed the evenings driving along Valley roads with no destination in mind. One day, bored with flatlands, I took the road north, where the untamed switchbacks were a revelation. They rose above the mist and swept out over the water so it felt like you were going to be shot out into space, then whipsawed back into the land and the canopy of trees on either side. I’d hit the pedal, spin the wheel with one hand, slam the brake, twist, let the wheel slide out between my fingers, crush the clutch and shift down and punch the accelerator once more, and all the while the wide ocean lay at my feet and I felt like a small-change god or a great eagle soaring over his domain” (192).
  • “Maybe if I had fought harder, shouted louder, insisted that Jag get help, he would be alive today. None of us was blameless—we all contributed to the silence—but that didn’t exonerate me. Banishment, as ancient a punishment as there ever was, seemed fitting for so ancient a crime as killing your brother” (236).
  • “Grief fades with time, it dies, or transforms, and becomes a hum at the back of the mind, and even that loses its power, and soon you wonder at the young man you were, who stared back shell-shocked every morning from the bathroom mirror, a ghost’s ghost, for whom it was torture to lift his razor to his cheek” (237).
  • “There are no countries, there are no nations, only people, the dead and living, and to be among the living is to owe a great debt to the dead” (243).
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Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler c. 2016 (237 pages—Hogarth)

This book is part of a series of reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s plays published by Hogarth. “Vinegar Girl” is the modern retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” (1590), in which Kate Battista, a motherless twenty-nine year old, takes care of her scientist father and absent-minded sister. Initially, Kate resists the pursuit of her father’s Russian lab assistant, Pyotr, but when both Kate’s father and Pyotr plot to make the romance a reality, Kate eventually gives in, falling in love with Pyotr.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • about Adam, Kate’s crush: “Now he happily tended two-year olds, wiping noses and soothing random cases of homesickness, and before Quiet Rest Time every day his mumbly, slightly furry voice could be heard singing lullabies above the soporific strumming of his guitar” (36).
  • “You could really feel physically wounded if someone hurt your feelings badly enough. Over the next few days, she discovered that. She had discovered it several times before, but this felt like a brand-new revelation, as sharp as a knife to her chest. Illogical, of course: why her chest? Hearts were just glorified pumps, after all. Still her own heart felt bruised, simultaneously shrunken and swollen, and if that sounded self-contradictory, well, so be it” (71).
  • “Walking home at the end of the day, she reviewed her conversation with Adam. ‘Ooh!’ she had said, not once but twice, in that artificial, girlie way she detested, and her voice had come out higher-pitched than usual and her sentences had slanted upward at the end. Stupid, stupid, stupid” (78).
  • about Pyotr: “There was a certain liberation in talking to a man who didn’t have a full grasp of English. She could tell him anything and half of it would fly right past him, especially if the words came tumbling out fast enough” (96).
  • about Kate’s father: “Now that the weather was warmer, he had abandoned the waffle-knit long-sleeved undershirts he wore all winter. His coverall sleeves were rolled up to expose his bare forearms, which were thin and black-haired and oddly frail. Kate felt an unexpected jolt of pity for him, over and above her exasperation. He was so inept-looking, so completely ill-equipped for the world around him” (104).
  • “Immigration was the family’s new bugaboo. Kate envisioned Immigration as a ‘he’—one man, wearing a suit and tie, handsome in the neutral, textureless style of a detective in an old black-and-white movie. He might even have that black-and-white movie voice, projected-sounding and masterful” (116).
  • “She had always been such a handful—a thorny child, a sullen teenager, a failure as a college student. What was to be done with her? But now they had the answer: marry her off. They would never have to give her another moment’s thought” (159).
  • “They smushed a layer of pale pink blossoms carpeting the sidewalk. They climbed the three brick steps and came to a stop on the stoop. Pyotr slapped his front pockets. Then he slapped his rear pockets. Then he said ‘Hell damn,’ and put his finger on the doorbell and held it there” (197).
  • Kate’s speech about her sister Bunny’s future husband: “I pity him, whoever he is. It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or if they’re about to fail, big-time at something—‘Oh, I’m okay,’ they say. ‘Everything is just fine.’ They’re a whole lot less free than the women are when you think about it” (231).
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Diary of an Oxygen Thief by Anonymous c. 2006 (151 pages—Gallery Books)

The author is anonymous, wholly without an internet persona perhaps because, as he confesses, he’s a horrible person (as evidenced by his treatment of women). The book, self-published and semi-autobiographical, is an edgy and well-written account of how an emotionally damaged man takes his hurt out on women.

Sentences worth studying

  • “And the fact that they were attracted to a piece of shit like me made me hate them even more than if they’d laughed in my face and walked away” (4).
  • “And one night I just cracked up. It’d been bubbling for ages. Simmer, simmer, bubble, stew . . . gurgle. I got completely fizzingly drunk and this whole chain of events began to rattle. Why would anyone set out to break the heart of someone he loved? Why would anyone intentionally cause that kind of pain?” (8).
  • “Romance has killed more people than cancer. Okay, maybe not killed, but dulled more lives. Removed more hope, sold more medication, caused more tears” (16).
  • “The conversation that started the ball rolling on the events of the following three years took place in the rattling hallway of an old French farmhouse in the Dordogne with dogs barking and the mistral shaking the windows” (40).
  • “American lawns are loaded with social and political meaning. There is a law somewhere that says you have to maintain your lawn or the neighbors can force you to. I knew nothing of this and immediately reveled in the possibility of allowing my front and back gardens to return to nature. A polite knock on my front door changed all that” (48).
  • “Also, I’m completely paranoid. I mean seriously paranoid. Not just mildly interested in the fact that there may be people who don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. No. The word is ‘paranoid.’ Another word is ‘self-centered.’ I don’t like that one as much, though. Doesn’t sound medical enough” (50-51).
  • “I should have been the perfect candidate for some self-respecting clean-gened Minnesotan girl. But fuck it, the big toothy smiles, the thick needy niceness. That crazy wide-eyed stare. I still don’t know what that was. Zoloft? Stupidity? In New York, everyone just looked hurt. It seemed more honest. Maybe I just identified with them” (64).
  • “A roasted turkey with no legs was steaming in the space between us. It was the first time my mother had brought a turkey on her own, and it had seemed like a bargain to her to buy the one that had no legs. It was considerably cheaper than the able-bodied version” (69).
  • “It’s not the fault of the ad agencies. It’s actually your fault. / The public. / And if this never gets published, it’s your fault, too, because it means that this kind of story was deemed uninteresting to you. / You bastards” (91).
  • “By the way, I am aware that up to this point I sound like a jilted boyfriend trying to disguise his attempt at revenge (i.e., this whole story) as a literary event that you (the reader) are supposed to be taken in by. Maybe” (111).
  • “Actually, it’s just occurred to me that there is no ending to this book, if it is a book, happy or otherwise. It’ll only be a comma in the sentence that will be added to it when her book comes out. There is a revenge element to all this” (148).
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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath c. 1971 (244 pages—Harper)

First published in London in 1963 (the year of Sylvia Plath’s death) under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar is Plath’s largely autobiographical account of her battle with mental illness. The protagonist, a nineteen-year-old writer named Esther Greenwood, goes to New York after being awarded an internship at a fashion magazine. Returning home to the suburbs of Boston, Esther suffers insomnia and is plagued by thoughts of death. The recurring image of a “bell jar” seems to convey the narrator’s feeling of being trapped and exposed—similar to a specimen in a bell jar.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway . . . It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterward, the cadaver’s head—or what was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast and behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black noseless balloon stinking of vinegar” (1-2).
  • “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence” (18).
  • “I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at a table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty” (27).
  • “I’d been telling people I’d always wanted to learn German for about five years. / My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school. My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia . . . / What I didn’t say each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam” (33).
  • “Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mold and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me . . . [But] Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the holes the leaves breathe through the fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr. Manzi’s special red chalk” (34-35).
  • “It wasn’t the nice kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain I imagine they might have I Brazil. It flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of steam writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete” (41).
  • “The same thing happened over and over: / I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all. / That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” (83).
  • “It was the day after Christmas and a gray sky bellied over us, fat with snow. I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass” (87).
  • “The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness” (94).
  • “A dispassionate white sun shone at the summit of the sky. I wanted to hone myself on it till I grew saintly and thin and essential as the blade of a knife” (98).
  • “Fashion blurbs, silver and full of nothing, sent up their fishy bubbles in my brain. They surfaced with a hollow pop” (99).
  • “The faces were empty as plates, and nobody seemed to be breathing” (105).
  • “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York” (111).
  • “The gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage. / I had never spent a summer in the suburbs before” (114).
  • “I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn’t shut out the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough” (123).
  • “I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason” (124).
  • “I saw, as if through the keyhole of a door I couldn’t open, myself and my younger brother, knee-high and holding rabbit-eared balloons, climb aboard a swanboat and fight for a seat at the edge, over the peanut-shell-paved water. My mouth tasted of cleaness and peppermint. If we were good at the dentist’s, my mother always bought us a swanboat ride” (137).
  • “Pantherlike in a dapple of tree shadow, Dodo Conway’s black station wagon lay in wait . . . Sitting in the front seat, between Dodo and my mother, I felt dumb and subdued. Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently” (145).
  • “I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights. / I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth” (147).
  • “When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies. / But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (147).
  • “The stones lay lumpish and cold under my bare feet. I thought lovingly of the black shoes on the beach. A wave drew back, like a hand, then advanced and touched my foot. / The drench seemed to come off the sea floor itself, where blind white fish ferried themselves by their own light through the great polar cold. I saw sharks’ teeth and whales’ earbones littered about down there like gravestones. / I waited, as if the sea could make my decision for me. / A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache” (153).
  • “I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed” (182).
  • “If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air” (185).
  • “The walls were bright, white lavatory tile with bald bulbs set at intervals in the black ceiling. Stretchers and wheelchairs were beached here and there against the hissing, knocking pipes that ran and branched in an intricate nervous system along the glittering walls. I hung onto Doctor Nolan’s arm like death, and every so often she gave me an encouraging squeeze” (213).
  • “All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air” (215).
  • “A fresh fall of snow blanketed the asylum grounds—not a Christmas sprinkle, but a man-high January deluge, the sort that snuffs out schools and offices and churches, and leaves, for a day or more, a pure, blank sheet in place of memo pads, date books and calendars” (236).
  • “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream. / A bad dream. / I remembered everything. / I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco’s diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon’s wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like gray skull. / Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. / But they were part of me. They were my landscape” (237).
  • “Then, behind the coffin and the flowers and the face of the minister and the faces of the mourners, I saw the rolling lawns of our town cemetery, knee-deep in snow now, with the tombstones rising out of it like smokeless chimneys” (243).
  • “But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (241).
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