Friday, March 11, 2016

Austen, Baldwin, Commas

            In the introduction of Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, her "coolness of judgment" is said to "counteract" her mother's "eagerness of mind" in a sentence whose forward motion is itself counteracted by punctuation: "Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence." The ten commas here punctuate the first 43 words and make them a representation of the careful thinking Elinor always engages in, while after the last of those commas, the final 14 words describe Mrs. Dashwood's "eagerness of mind" in a comparative rush of unpunctuated words. Elinor's mode of thinking is thus also a mode of writing and even of reading: a slow reading of the novel (and of novels) is needed to "counteract" the haste of an "imprudent" reading. "Eager" immersion in the novel may be pleasurable, but "effectual" interpretation demands the careful parsing of the novel's language.
            The same effect of punctuation can be found in a sentence in the first part of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain. At the end of the visit to the cinema with which John Grimes celebrates his fourteenth birthday in 1935, he confronts the absolute opposition between salvation and eternal damnation: "Either he arose from this theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment." The five commas here punctuate the first 22 words and make them a representation of the "narrow way" of salvation that John has been raised to believe in, while after the last of those commas, the final 13 words describe the "broad way" of damnation in another comparative rush of unpunctuated words (and John had walked down Broadway before going to the movies). However, while one of the opposed terms in Austen's sentence "counteracts" the other and is thus privileged, Baldwin's sentence presents its opposition as an either-or alternative, a "cruel choice," as it is called a few lines later, between salvation and damnation. Salvation may require effort, as Elinor's "coolness of judgment" does, but it remains open whether it can successfully "counteract" its opposite.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Here's a further reading of the Baldwin passage by the student who brought it to my attention: