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Literary Style - A Comparative Study

Study this selection of excerpts from contemporary literature, compare their literary style and reflect on their effect on you as a reader; then answer the following questions.

Person som skriver på laptop. Foto.

The words and language of a narrative are the components of its literary style. The writer carefully selects his style so it will complement the other narrative elements (the setting, the mood / atmosphere, the characterization and the composition of the plot). It is a bit like painting a picture; the colours and light will define how we perceive its image. Briefly put, the writer is a painter with words; the colours, light and shades of a narrative are its words and syntax (the order of words).

"The words hung in the air a moment without meeting agreement or disagreement: it was as if they both knew secretly that there was no certainty as to what constituted the happiness or unhappiness of another."
(That They may Face the Rising Sun, John McGahern, 2002)

  1. What is the effect of the line “the words hung in the air”? (When do words hang in the air?)
  2. How does the writer make us feel a certain edginess in the situation?
  3. What is the effect of using the words “happiness or unhappiness” in an assumedly trivial conversation?

"In the early evening, high-altitude clouds in the western sky formed a thin yellow wash which became richer over the hour, and then thickened until a filtered orange glow hung above the giant crests of parkland trees; the leaves became nutty brown, the branches glimpsed among the foliage oily black, and the desiccated grasses took on the colours of the sky."
(Atonement, Ian McEwan, 2001)

  1. This is called a descriptive style. Which words / word class usually contribute to a richer and more descriptive language? Point out examples in this passage.
  2. Point out some words and lines that can compare this style with painting a picture.
  3. Compare with excerpt 6 – do you see any similarities?
  4. What is the effect of using “desiccated” instead of the simpler “dried”?
  5. How would you describe the mood created by this passage?

"Not going to tell not going to oh that that’s what you are talking about is it you understand that I don’t give a damn whether you tell or not understand that a thing like that unfortunate but no police crime I wasn’t the first or the last I was just unlucky you might have been luckier"
(The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner, 1931)

  1. What is your first reaction to this style?
  2. Even though some words are omitted and there is no punctuation, how do we still get the idea of what it is about? (What are the key words?)
  3. Which words are missing? Rewrite the passage into normal English. Does it change in any way?
  4. In which literary tradition does such a style belong?
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

"He looked forward all the year to that moment when the bull would come out into the square on that day when you watched his eyes while he made his choice of whom in the square he would attack in that sudden head-lowering, horn-reaching, quick cat gallop that stopped your heart dead when it started."
(For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940)

  1. Do you see any similarities with excerpt 3?
  2. Which words does Hemingway use to personify the bull?
  3. In what way is this excerpt an example of Hemingway’s alleged “macho” style? (What do you associate with a “macho” style?)
  4. Follow this link and read more about Hemingway and his style and technique.
    Ernest Hemingway

"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell that he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd."
(Brighton Rock, Graham Greene, 1938)

  1. This is a peculiar way to start a novel. What is the effect of the opening sentence? Does it increase the suspense or kill the thrill? Why do you think Greene has chosen to start his famous novel like this?
  2. What is the effect of the syntax here: "...his manner cynical and nervous" (Why not "his cynical and nervous manner"?)
  3. Which words does Greene use to present Hale as an outsider?
  4. Comment on the expression “belong to the early summer sun”.
  5. What is the effect of the repetitive use of the word “belong”?

"The wind, flapping like a blanket, beat and thrashed and swung and slapped and buffeted, making each casement rattle, every door sway and creak. The wind sighed in the chimney, clanked in the pipes, and gibbered in the TV aerial. Rain slapped on to the slates, and dashed in cascades against the stuttering windows."
(Power-cut, Joan Aiken, 1977)

  1. Compare with excerpt 2 – do you see any similarities?
  2. How are the elements described?
  3. Where do you find personification in the excerpt?
  4. Comment on the line “against the stuttering windows”. (Can windows stutter?)
  5. What mood does this style create?
Roald Dahl Stamp with Matilda Image
Roald Dahl Stamp with Matilda Image

"Of course I knew she could read," the mother said. "She spends her life up there in her room buried in some silly book." "But does it not intrigue you," Miss Honey said, "that a little five-year-old child is reading long adult novels by Dickens and Hemingway? Doesn’t that make you jump up and down with excitement?" " Not particularly," the mother said. "I’m not in favour of blue-stocking girls. A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books, Miss Hunky…" "The name is Honey," Miss Honey said. "Now look at me," Mrs Wormwood said, "Then look at you, You chose books, I chose looks. (…) And who’s finished up the better off? Me, of course. I’m sitting pretty in a nice house with a successful businessman, and you’re left slaving away teaching a lot of nasty children the ABC."
(Matilda, Roald Dahl, 1988)

  1. How can you see that the style is primarily aimed at children?
  2. Which words does Roald Dahl use to make the reader understand Mrs Wormwood’s opinion of Miss Honey?
  3. Comment on the names of the characters. (Mr Wormwood is a dodgy second-hand car dealer.)

"The summer was going by, and it was fun. There wasn’t anything to worry about, and there were dreams. Edna Purcell, who had been in his class, seemed sweet on him, and she was a wonderful girl. (…) No matter what Morty thought about he thought about Edna at the same time. He thought about her every time he dreamed. When he walked on streets in the neighbourhood, he thought of her. When he went to Washington Park or swimming, he thought of Edna. Edna, just to think of her, Edna made everything in the world wonderfully wonderful."
(The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street, James T Farrell, 1950)

  1. The narrative is quite straightforward, but the style / choice of words distinctively colour this passage. What is the mood here, and which words bring it out?
  2. How does the writer make it shine through that Morty is fourteen years old?
  3. What makes this a good description of the bliss of being in love?
  4. At the end of the story Morty and his friends are chasing some black boys, Morty gets way ahead (the fastest runner...) and is rounded up and killed by the black mob. How does the style and information of this excerpt work in relation to such an ending?

"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."
(The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, 1946)

  1. How does this work as an opening of a novel?
  2. In what way is this a somewhat surprising style?
  3. What does the style tell you about the protagonist?
  4. The writer lets the protagonist address the reader in a direct and personal manner. How does this dialogue style work?

"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. The city I'm bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a freiend, treating you as you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you're actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people. (...) Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you've allowed yourself to be led astray, and it's too late to turn back now."
( The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber, 2003)

  1. Compare with excerpt 9; do you see any similarities?
  2. How does this rather ominous style work as an opening of a novel?
  3. What is the mood here, and how does the writer create it?
  4. Why do you think the writer has chosen this rather condescending style when he addresses the reader?

Further Reading

  • If these brief excerpts have triggered your curiosity, find them on the net and read the full version. They are highly recommended.
  • Follow this link and read more about literary style in a historical perspective.
    The Rough Guide to Literary Style


Literary analysis

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