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English 270: Final Exam Study Help

The final will include two passages and ask you to give your best stylistic reading of one of them. That will involve doing what we've done for the past weeks: extend and apply to specific written texts some of the knowledge you've been developing over the course of the quarter.

To help you prepare for this, you have several resources, beginning with your own notes from class. But you also have the fairly full explanation given in The Speaker in the Text on the Blackboard.

Moreover, here I will supplement those resources with my own Review Notes on four of the passages we looked at over the past three weeks. These notes don't cover everything we talked about in class, but they make a start—and I think of each as a full credit answer. I first post a passage, then follow that passage with my paragraphs summarizing my own view of these particular speakers. (Your answer will probably not be quite as full as the ones I give you here--focus on what details are noted and especially how they address voice (sometimes referred to as "tone"), syntax, diction, register. They may also have rhythm or sound effects.


J. D. Salinger, from The Catcher in the Rye

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.

Charles Dickens, from David Copperfield

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighborhood, who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits—both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants, of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

Comments on Salinger: The voice in Salinger’s paragraph is impulsive, youthful, random and free-flowing. It is sarcastic and borderline transgressive, but also unsure of itself, reluctant to share, but full in what he says. Syntax is loose, sometimes simple, sometimes compound sentences, semi-periodic at best—almost stream of consciousness, thought tumbling out as if not fully thought through and therefore in need of instant revision: “They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell.” The speaker is ill at ease, half apologizing for speaking at all (“if you really want to hear about it”). He’s not polished, not all that sure of himself, not reflective so much as babbling—a kind of hemorrhage of discourse (!). Diction is largely Anglo Saxon—the only Latinate words are very common words, like “probably” and “autobiography”; “occupied” may be the most “formal” word in the passage, except for “hemorrhage,” which is there as a kind of hyperbolic metaphor—exaggeration as teenage style register—he only means they’d be very upset. The speaker’s teenager register includes slang and the sort of informal diction characteristic of speech (“touchy as hell,” “have about two hemorrhages apiece,” “goddam autobiography,” “nice and all,” “pretty personal”). He is also speaking as if in conversation with someone—it is a conversational voice, availing itself of what conversations allow: revision, efforts to have rhetorical effect, to portray a certain kind of coolness (i.e., I can swear, I can use vaguely transgressive expressions like “have about two hemorrhages apiece” in regard to one’s parents). Interestingly, the novel ahead will be taken up with telling all of what he here denies that he wishes to relate.

Comments on Dickens: Syntax in Dickens’s passage is periodic, not loose—in fact the whole selection is in periodic sentences. That helps give it a formal air, even as it strives for a level of ironic comment and self-deprecation. A certain amount of Latinate diction, and in places that could have been filled by AS: “In consideration of the hour”; “it was declared,” “any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted,” “I was privileged,” “inevitably attaching.” He also uses passive constructions (“it was declared,” “I was privileged.” All of these syntactic and diction choices elevate the level of formality and connote an educated, practiced and reflective writer. He is in control of his life and his prose, his style seems to say, and at least as far as his having some humor and some ironic distance on his birth, he is a success in his life, even if he grants that he may not exactly be its hero. Where Salinger’s speaker just pours out his state of mind, revealing his discomfort and fears, Dickens’ speaker is measured, in control, able to create balanced parallel constructions and to gently mock all those present at his birth for their superstitious—and vaguely ridiculous—ways of thinking about his arrival in the world. At the same time, he does open a range of possibilities about his life, and implies that at his birth there were certain mysteries about how successful he’d actually be—opening up the terrain for the narrative to follow.


Ecclesiastes, from the Bible, King James Version

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ernest Hemingway, from “Big Two-Hearted River”

Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled against the log piles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

Comments on Ecclesiastes

“Ecclesiastes” means “preacher,” or “minister.” This is thus the speaking of a preacher—as such something of a sermon—and it has what could be called a “vatic” air [vates is Latin for “prophet”] —a knowingness, a kind of indirect assertion of wisdom about the heavens and the earth and human life that transcends that held by ordinary mortals like you and me. It gets that through a series of stylistic choices. First its diction is actually pretty much Anglo-Saxon (AS)—which normally connotes a common person, a down to earth, no nonsense sort. Here though that very ordinariness (“sun” “rivers” “wind”) grows mystical as the loose sentences set simple truths out along with simple but not fully explained semi-contradictions of them. “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” Well, but the sea is already full, even if in real life we don’t actually ever imagine the sea as full or not full—whatever it is, it is! And we can understand the water cycle, but it doesn’t feel as though that’s what he’s talking about with the rivers returning from "whence they come." Because what he says in some sentences is too simple to need saying, we are made to wonder (by the Gricean principle of conversational economy) what his real purpose is in saying them. As for the syntax, it is loose, not periodic, and the sentences, though not complicated, have lots of parallel construction. That gives it a formal feel even as the language itself is both simple and what one could call elemental, or drawn for the most part from nature: wind, sea, rivers, sun, moon. The diction is archaic, reflecting the Bible’s early 17th century translators, and the parallel constructions which seem almost confusingly repetitious connote fullness of thought even though the meaning of the phrases each by themselves seems almost too simple to be uttered.

All of this is pushed to a stylistic extreme in the last sentence which is like the others in repeating bits, in being loose and compound, but replaces even the common specific words like “sun” and “rivers” with pronouns and the very general word “thing”: “The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Overall, the passage offers a sense of paradox and of a speaker who is in touch with wisdoms beyond the ordinary, who sees in ordinary natural things meanings of a more complex and life-informing nature than the rest of us do. Like, in short, at least some sorts of preachers!


Comments on Hemingway

As in Ecclesiastes, the vocabulary here focuses on the natural: river, water, fish. Diction is primarily Anglo-Saxon, with only a few Latinates. Much repetition of phrases, and as in Ecclesiastes, it isn’t obvious why he needs to repeat, so we are likely to wonder whether it is just a silly way of writing, or it holds meaning we don’t immediately see—just as Nick looks down into the brown water, which is completely ordinary, but can't immediately see anything in it. The verbs that describe Nick are mostly “looking,” “watching,” or “seeing.” Indeed, the only other verb used for him is "walked." But those verbs are all observational—nothing about “thinking,” “reflecting,” “intending,” or “planning.” Nick is just an observer here, not a thinker, just as we are as well: as we see Nick seeing, we are observing Nick who is himself observing his natural surroundings. In paragraph two we see him first unable to "see" but then finally able to see the big trout, the goal of his journey, “holding themselves steady in the current,” a point of constancy amidst movement of sand eddying up around them. So lots of movement, lots of motion of fins, yet the fish are unchanging, their fins holding them steady even as the current rushes past them.

So, a restrained, elemental narrative voice, very even-toned, reportorial, sparse. The syntax is loose, its diction predominantly AS, as the passage describes the facts of the scene, slowly circling and moving deeper until it reports Nick seeing what he could not see upon his arrival in sentence one. The meaning of a phrase like “The river was there” is obscure to begin with, no matter how simple the syntax and diction, because it is (like some of the phrases in Ecclesiastes) TOO easy to understand. That invites a reader to look again. It is not itself a metaphor literally, but to a figurative eye the whole passage is something of a metaphor—the river with the man looking into it, the gradual refinement of his vision as he sees deeper, the almost mystical calm along with the implicit sense that this should need no further explanation—all this suggests a comparison to human kind in general looking towards nature for insight and understanding. Here one might say that Nick is looking for something constant and reliable after his “burned out” experience in the Great War of 1914-1918, and the style matches nature itself in being restrained, ordered, and calm.