I felt the starched walls
of a pink cotton penitentiary
closing in on me.
Novels are long and have plots and story arcs and subplots and things. But sometimes one single sentence or passage from a novel will stick with me for years.
Sometimes it’s because the language is poetic. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout Finch’s aunt comes to stay, she tries to turn Scout into a little lady. Scout explains her situation thus: “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me.” As a lifelong tomboy, this sentence speaks to me loud and clear.
Other times I’ll remember a passage that made me think about the universe in a new way. At one point in my life, my favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I’ll never forget the nanny, Old Golly, proclaiming “There are as many ways to live as there are people in the world.”
A few years later I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that remains on my favorites list to this day. It not only shook up my thinking on gender, but also on political boundaries, when one of the characters asks a not-so-simple question:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”
Finally, I have to admit I’m a sucker for scenes where a character quotes Shakespeare and pulls it off. I like this especially when it comes from an Average Joe type character, such Barnaby Gaitlin in Patchwork Planet by Ann Tyler. Barnaby goes through a bit of character development during the course of the story. Without giving spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book, there’s a scene where he recalls one poem he learned in school that he understood, a Shakespearean sonnet. He turns to another character, saying “Haply I think on thee.” You’d never predict the words coming from his mouth early in the book, but it so works by the time he says it.
Yeah, novels are long and there are big things in them: plots, story arcs and so on. But attention to detail is still important. Paying attention to getting the right words in the right order at the right place. It matters.