Sentences — June 25, 2008, 4:11 pm

The Solid Shelf of Rock

“Kent would have to be raised up by his father, pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother.”

The sentence comes a quarter of the way into Alice Munro’s latest short story, “Deep-Holes.” A picnic has gone awry; it started to go awry in the first paragraph, when the mother and father mentioned above were etched into life with two brusque Munrovian clauses: “She protested, but he insisted.”

“Kent would have to be raised up by his father, pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother” contains the whole of Munro’s story. Not its plot, which — as her readers have come to gratefully expect — offers a busy succession of unexpected arrivals and departures. Rather, its tone and theme. The words “tone” and “theme” might have come to seem like ruined critical vessels, ripe for what Terry Eagleton calls the amateur side of literary criticism, “a sort of waffling belletrism, the linguistic equivalent of wine tasting.” Especially in light of the reading group guides that have begun to agglutinate at the rear of too many books. Tom Bissell’s good joke: “Did Odysseus make the right choice returning to Ithaca? As a single mother, was Penelope right to wait for his return?” However . . .

Theme in Munro: The story in question, told from the point of view of the mother, details the difficulties that she and her husband have, through many decades, with one of their three children, Kent. The boy has come between them, these parents, and here, in the sentence in question, in a moment of violence and fear, the parents must reckon with the boy’s literal fall, one which prefigures worse plummets to come.

Tone in Munro: Not understated but stated straight. Where some writers try to compete with the violence they describe, Munro reports and moves on. To call such reporting journalistic, though, would miscast the deliberation that goes into Munro’s restraint, the balance that is needed to produce a tone that carries more than content, conveying in its choices the story’s theme: parental division. The sentence under consideration delivers the inert boy from one parent to another. The parents are poised on either side of this transaction, separated by nothing more than a comma, each phrase that the comma separates ending in a prepositional manner (“by his father/ by his mother”), with each half ten words long.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Kent would have to be raised up by his father,
pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother.
 

The tense Munro chooses here poises the event in the conditional mood, one given over to that which can occur in the future but might not. And this, actually, beyond a description of a tense, it too the mood, tone, theme, and plot of “Deep-Holes.” Nothing in Munro is inadvertent.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Maggie H.

    Just so.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Rebecca Solnit on silencing women, a Marine commander returns to Iraq, the decline of PBS, and more
Article
Cassandra Among the Creeps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On silencing women

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
Ending College Sexual Assault·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Taking back power and culture in the digital age
“There’s a pervasive and ill-advised faith that technology will promote competition if left to its own devices.”
Photograph © Deborah Degraffenried

Chance that a civilian who died in a 20th-century war was American:

1 in 62,000

A physicist calculated that mass worldwide conversion to a vegetarian diet would do more to slow global warming than cutting back on oil and gas use.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today