20 January 2014

Human Gestures

...And by that I don't mean acts of kindness or generosity; I mean gestures by which writers can characterize and illuminate their otherwise uninteresting or unbelievable characters. 

I remember in a creative writing class I took a few semesters ago that the professor (a truly terrifying person) was particularly taken with a passage from one of the texts he'd assigned us.  He said it was perfect.  And he meant it literally and seriously.  There was no hyperbole.  The book was Denis Johnson's Vietnam era Tree of Smoke, and the passage dealt with a conversation between a mother and son, the son being one of many protagonists in the book.  Over a meager supper, the mother says of her youngest son:
He'll be around. He's always hungry. I lost weight while I carried him to term.  I started out one-nineteen, and in my ninth month I was down to one-eleven.  He fed on me from the inside.
After a meal of peanut butter and canned soup, over which the son brings up his desire to enlist, the mother asks where the youngest is, to which her other son replies, "He'll come when he's hungry."
"He's always hungry," she said, and began to say all over again the same things she'd just told him, because she was unable not to say them.
The way the professor read and interpreted this passage, the way he described it, reminded me of the way I felt when a read a certain passage in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.  Dickens, of course was always adept at unique characterizations - dare we say, caricatures.  But this passage between Joe and Pip I thought was, in the same way, perfect:
"You might, old chap," said Joe.  "And she might credit it.  Similarly she mightn't."  Joe felt, as I did, that he had made a point there, and he pulled hard at his pipe to keep himself from weakening it by repetition.
Did you catch that?  Weakening it by repetition.  Because, when you're having a fairly intent discussion, as Pip and Joe are here, and you say something that sounds good - you know it, right?  And you want to say it again, because it just sounded so good the first time. 

And yet... It never sounds as good the second time around, does it?

What's even more interesting to me, is that I feel as if the observation doesn't actually come from Pip, but from Dickens himself, unable to avoid a slightly too keen attention to the motivations of others even though he should be speaking through Pip's voice and from his perspective only.

What are some human gestures you've discovered in literature?

Oh, but of course.  You're just imaginary.

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