Waves of Style (Excerpt: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, part 2, chapter 4)


The vein in Jake’s forehead throbbed wildly. His mouth worked convulsively. Singer sat up, alarmed. Jake tried to speak again and the words choked in his mouth. A shudder passed through his body. He sat down in the chair and pressed his trembling lips with his fingers. Then he said huskily:

“It’s this way, Singer. Being mad is no good. Nothing we can do is any good. That’s the way it seems to me. All we can do is go around telling the truth. And as soon as enough of the don’t-knows have learned the truth then there won’t be any use for fighting. The only thing for us to do is let them know. All that’s needed. But how? Huh?”

The fire shadows lapped against the walls. The dark, shadowy waves rose higher and the room took on motion. The room rose and fell and all balance was gone. Alone Jake felt himself sink downward, slowly in wavelike motions downward into a shadowed ocean. In helplessness and terror he strained his eyes, but he could see nothing except the dark and scarlet waves that roared hungrily over him. Then at last he made out the thing which he sought. The mute’s face was faint and very far away. Jake closed his eyes.

The next morning he awoke very late. Singer had been gone for hours. There was bread, cheese, and orange, and a pot of coffee on the table. When he had finished his breakfast it was time for work. He walked somberly, his head bent, across the town toward his room. When he reached the neighborhood where he lived he passed through a certain narrow street that was flanked on one side by a smoke-blackened brick warehouse. On the wall of this building there was something that vaguely distracted him. He started to walk on, and then his attention was suddenly held. On the wall in message was written in bright red chalk, the letters drawn thickly and curiously formed:

Ye shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth.

He read the message twice and looked anxiously up and down the street. No one was in sight. After a few minutes of puzzled deliberation he took from his pocket a thick red pencil and wrote carefully beneath the inscription:

Whoever wrote the above meet me here tomorrow at noon, Wednesday, November 29. Or the next day.

At 12 o’clock the next day he waited before the wall. Now and then he walked impatiently to the corner to look up and down the streets. No one came. After an hour he had to leave for the show.

The next day he waited, also.

Then on Friday there was a long, slow winter rain. The wall was sodden and the messages streaked so that no word could be read. The rain continued, gray and bitter and cold.

The third paragraph is what caught my eye, but it requires the entire passage to make its meaning clear. I think there’s a lesson here: Style, like drama, can have structure. The third paragraph is the stylistic climax of the passage. On its own, it would seem overblown, but the paragraphs around it support and expand on it. Stylistic consistency here would be bad. Stylistic intensity, like dramatic intensity, should rise and fall according to some plan. This passage has a stylistic shape like a dramatic structure: Intense at the start, at one point in the middle, and at the end.

I also want to point out that this passage shows how Jake feels four ways, one after the other:

1. It shows what he looks like.
2. He tries to explain himself in dialogue.
3. It shows how Jake’s thoughts alter his perceptions.
4. It shows an event of the type that cause Jake to feel this way.


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