Virtual Roundtable on
“Description in the Novel”

This roundtable on description in the novel took place on May 3, 2016, at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. Concluding the inaugural year of the Novel Theory Seminar, the ...

This roundtable on description in the novel took place on May 3, 2016, at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. Concluding the inaugural year of the Novel Theory Seminar, the roundtable featured presentations by Wai Chee Dimock, Heather Love, William Mills Todd III, J. Keith Vincent, and Cynthia Wall. To solicit brief position papers from each of these scholars, who represent five different areas of expertise within literary studies, we sent them the following prompt:

Questions to consider might involve, for instance, the ways in which description has been pivotal for the novel as a literary form that aims to amalgamate fictionality with referentiality; how description is (or isn’t) surplus to the requirements of plot; how description serves to thicken and/or spatialize time while it suspends story; how it contributes to the modeling of fictional worlds; how it secures (or doesn’t) the boundaries between persons and things, characters and settings; and whether and how literary description differs from other descriptive modes and practices.

In addition, we asked each participant to select and analyze a passage of description from a text of their choice (in English or in English translation), which we distributed prior to the event. For the purposes of this virtual manifestation of the roundtable in Public Books, the analyses have taken the form of annotations created with the website’s native commenting tool: click on the lavender bookmark icon at the end of this paragraph for instructions on how to view the annotations.

While keeping the rhetoric of description in full view, our goal was to facilitate a wide-ranging discussion that would aspire to be as imaginative, intellectually adventuresome, and capacious as the novel form itself.

—David Alworth, guest editor


—Wai Chee Dimock: Weak Description (on James Joyce, Ulysses, and, with Brandon Menke, Henri Matisse’s Moroccan paintings)

—Heather Love: Dreaming and Description (on Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt)

—William Mills Todd III: Description as an Alibi for Narrative (on Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

—J. Keith Vincent: Description in the Japanese Prose Sketch (on Masaoka Shiki, “While Waiting for Lunch”)

—Cynthia Wall: Description in Action (on Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, and Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening)


Wai Chee Dimock


The passages that I have chosen for the roundtable might seem surprising, since most of you know me as an Americanist rather than a modernist. But the book that I’m working on, Weak Theory, is not a strictly Americanist book. It is about a class of phenomena more generally observable, phenomena that I’d like to call “low-grade” or “low-bar”—nonbinding networks, fuzzy genres, minimal criticism, and so on. In that context, I’m especially interested in descriptions that might strike us as inadequate: lacking in conviction, lacking in specifics, sometimes just plain wrong. Though frustrating to witness, these apparent shortfalls are by no means trivial, nor are they without some far-reaching downstream effects. Indeed, as I will argue, their descriptive weakness might turn out to be a switch point of sorts, allowing for a scaled-back dependency on existing norms, and paving the way for an attempted, though not always accomplished, migration to new genres, new compositional protocols. I’d like to explore that possibility today, beginning with the Penelope episode in Ulysses.


Vague “Ulysses”

As Richard Brown points out, in quantitative terms roughly “a fifth to a quarter” of this episode is set in Gibraltar, where Molly grew up, making it the novel’s significant “other” locale.1 It is strange that, in a novel so focused on Dublin, the last chapter should have this conspicuous foray to such a faraway place. Joyce had done his research with his usual thoroughness, reading up on details of streets and names of shops in the Gibraltar Directory, just as he had done with Thom’s Dublin Directory. He also drew heavily on Henry Field’s Gibraltar
(1888), and repeated some of its errors, including its tendency to make too much of a good thing. Field emphasizes, for instance, the magnificent views and great distances that one can see. An officer on duty can, “with his field-glasses, sweep the whole horizon, north and south, from the Sierra Nevada in Spain, to the long chain of the Atlas Mountains in Africa.”2 Joyce repeats this error by equipping Molly with a borrowed spyglass, which enables her to “see over to Morocco almost the bay of Tangier white and the Atlas mountain with snow on it.”3

As a description of Morocco, this might seem underwhelming. It also happens to be factually incorrect. Don Gifford points out: “On a clear day, Molly could easily see Morocco, but Tangiers, 35 miles through the straits to the southwest, would be masked by headlands, and the snowcapped Saharan Atlas Mountains in Algeria, 375 miles to the southeast, are clearly out of range.”4

Joyce’s account of Morocco is not only heavily mediated, in this case, compounding the prior errors of others, it also seems deliberately blurry, monochrome, with the snow-capped Atlas Mountain and the “bay of Tangier white” both in a kind of atmospheric haze. This Morocco is not exactly depopulated, but it is relieved of much of the historical data that usually come with human populations.

Of course, Molly would not be the one to tell us that there was a long and fraught history between North Africa and Europe, that the word “Moor” still conjured up unquiet specters long after 1492, when Granada, the last of the Islamic cities, fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, and the whole of Spain once again came under Christian rule. And, since the narrative present for her is the Dublin of 1904, and she is thinking back to her girlhood in Gibraltar in 1884–85, the 1905 Tangier Crisis, the 1911 Agadir Crisis, and the 1912 Treaty of Fez, which divided Morocco into French and Spanish protectorates, are all in the future, out of reach for her. She wouldn’t know any of these things. But Joyce most certainly would.


Blue-Green Matisse

That knowledge, though, seems to be there only to be abstracted, bracketed, made as nonintrusive as possible. Matisse’s Moroccan paintings offer an interesting parallel here: like Joyce’s restricted palette, many of these paintings are also blurry, monochrome, or nearly monochrome. While Joyce’s Morocco is mostly white, Matisse’s is mostly blue, or blue-green. And, in each case, the narrow range of the color field produces a stylized, washed-out effect, at once abstracting and idealizing the subject.

Fig. 1: Henri Matisse, <i>Le marabout</i> (1912). Oil on canvas. Private collection. 21.5 x 27.5 cm

Fig. 1: Henri Matisse, Le marabout (1912). Oil on canvas. Private collection. 21.5 x 27.5 cm

Le marabout (1912) is a case in point (fig. 1). Painted during Matisse’s first trip to Morocco, it represents an actual site in the casbah of Tangier, the Marabout Sidi Ben Raisoul on the rue Ben Abbou. Influenced by the black-and-white postcards and photographs of the time, and by the muted tones in the Tangier paintings by Matisse’s friend, Albert Marquet, this painting is likewise restricted in its palette, with serene blues and greens covering almost the entire canvas.

The pervasive tonality is all the more notable because the actual color of much of the architecture in Tangier, and especially of the Marabout Sidi Ben Raisoul, is not blue-green, but white (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: <i>Le Marabout de la Kasbah, Tanger</i> (c. 1910). Photo offset lithograph postcard. Private collection. 8.7 x 13.7 cm

Fig. 2: Le Marabout de la Kasbah, Tanger (c. 1910). Photo offset lithograph postcard. Private collection. 8.7 x 13.7 cm

This counterfactual palette is even more striking in Le rifain debout (1912; Standing Riffian) (fig. 3). Featuring a young man with a hard stare, the painting spoke to the formidable reputation Riffians enjoyed as seasoned fighters and kidnappers of foreign visitors to Morocco. A review of this painting at the April 1913 exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune noted the young man’s “angular face” and “ferocious build,” and went on: “How can you look at this splendid barbarian without thinking of the warriors of days gone by! Such a fierce expression—just like that of the Moors of the Song of Roland!”5 Still, that fierce expression notwithstanding, much of the painting is taken up by the green wool djellaba the Riffian is wearing, and by the lengthwise division of the background into a rectangle of loosely brushed blue and a rectangle of loosely brushed green, a gentle, soft-focus palette that more than tempers the proverbial bloodthirstiness of this warrior.

Fig. 3: Henri Matisse, <i>Le rifain debout</i> (1912). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. 146.6 x 97.7 cm

Fig. 3: Henri Matisse, Le rifain debout (1912). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. 146.6 x 97.7 cm

The Calypso Effect

I’d be happy to talk more about this near-monochrome Matisse. For now I’d like to circle back to the phenomenon of weak description. What we’re witnessing in the white Morocco and the blue-green Morocco, I would argue, is a self-rarefying, self-insulating performance, not unlike the “veil of ignorance” advocated by John Rawls, a descriptive filter that screens out much of the harmful historical detail, making it too “thin” to yield either-or propositions, or to be rushed toward its destined end. What results is a minimalist sketch, suspended at an early stage of individuation, without the fleshed-out information that would have crystallized the outcome. Description suspended in this way has to be low-resolution, since high resolution would have produced a weighted scenario, arriving at the end much too quickly and eliminating too many of the variables, turning a live virtuality into a dead certainty. I call this clarity-resisting, variable-preserving mechanism Joyce’s “Calypso effect.”

Calypso is, of course, the daughter of Atlas, the nymph who, true to the etymology of her name (from Καλυψώ, meaning “to cover,” “to conceal,” “to hide”), keeps Odysseus holed up on her island, Ogygia, an invisible spot at the “navel of the sea.” Episode 4 of Ulysses is dedicated to her. This episode, the first in which Leopold Bloom appears, also features the first of many detours to Molly’s girlhood home, beginning with the marital bed, shipped to Dublin “all the way from Gibraltar.”6 This well-traveled bed in turn provides a means of transportation for Bloom, taking him, in his imagination, to an unspecified locale that seems oddly North African, even Middle Eastern, with Islam prominently featured: “The shadows of the mosques along the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches me from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of those instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.”7

As description goes, the one in “Calypso” is even more obviously inadequate than the one in “Penelope,” so much so that this has got to be the point. I would argue that this low-bar performance is in fact a high-stakes game, giving Islam a claim to our attention it otherwise might not have, making it an organic part of a Dublin story, and impossible for Joyce not to come back to in some fashion, as indeed he does in Finnegans Wake. In that book, Islam is there, front and center: with the Qur’an serving as one of the overlapping templates for its idiosyncratic narration. James Atherton, in his pioneering study, cites scores of sentences laced with references to Islam and the Qur’an, including this one: “I have his quoram of images all on my retinue, Mohomadhawn Mike.”8 The portmanteau word Mohomadhawn—at once a Mohammedan and a homadhaun, Irish for a lout—wouldn’t have been quite so casual, quite so matter-of-fact, without the prior appearance of Islam in Ulysses, which, skimpy to begin with, is also exceptionally pliable, adaptable, raw material that could be used over and over again, raw material that one could take liberties with and do things to. This is the stuff that Finnegans Wake is made of, a mishmash of the local and the arcane, fragments of words that are cobbled together and recycled together, all with a weak claim to their own integrity. Replacing glossy surfaces with an underdeveloped blur, weak description emerges as a deliberately low-threshold, recycling-based modernist signature.


From James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), edited by Hans Walter Gabler (Vintage, 1986), pp. 626–27.


… H M S Calypso swinging my hat that old Bishop that spoke off the altar his long preach about womans higher functions about girls now riding the bicycle and wearing peak caps and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money I suppose theyre called after him I never thought that would be my name Bloom when I used to write it in print to see how it looked on a visiting card or practising for the butcher and oblige M Bloom youre looking blooming Josie used to say after I married him well its better than Breen or Briggs does brig or those awful names with bottom in them Mrs Ramsbottom or some other kind of a bottom Mulvey I wouldnt go mad about either or suppose I divorced him Mrs Boylan my mother whoever she was might have given me a nicer name the Lord knows after the lovely one she had Lunita Laredo the fun we had running along Williss road to Europa point twisting in and out all round the other side of Jersey they were shaking and dancing about in my blouse like Millys little ones now when she runs up the stairs I loved looking down at them I was jumping up at the pepper trees and the white poplars pulling the leaves off and throwing them at him he went to India he was to write the voyages those men have to make to the ends of the world and back its the least they might get a squeeze or two at a woman while they can going out to be drowned or blown up somewhere I went up Windmill hill to the flats that Sunday morning with captain Rubios that was dead spyglass like the sentry had he said hed have one or two from on board I wore that frock from the B Marche paris and the coral necklace the straits shining I could see over to Morocco almost the bay of Tangier white and the Atlas mountains with snow on it and the straits like a river so clear Harry Molly darling I was thinking of him on the sea all the time after at mass when my petticoat began to slip down at the elevation weeks and weeks I kept the handkerchief under my pillow for the smell of him there was no decent perfume to be got in the Gibraltar only that cheap peau dEspagne that faded and left a stink on you more than anything else I wanted to give him a memento he gave me that clumsy Claddagh ring for luck that I gave Gardner going to south Africa where those Boers killed him with their war and fever but they were well beaten all the same …

Jump to remarks: Wai Chee Dimock, Heather Love, William Mills Todd III, J. Keith Vincent, Cynthia Wall



Heather Love


Description is baked into representation. Doing without description is unthinkable, yet this permanent and pervasive feature of human activity is regularly taken to task for its aesthetic and moral failings. In literature and the arts, description has been associated with a deadening and derivative copyism, and compared unfavorably to activities such as narration and invention. The case against description is even more damning in the social sciences, where it is linked to positivist and reductive accounts of human action. That association was fostered in the US in the period after World War II, when the growth of the social sciences was fueled by its increasing entanglement with an expanding national security apparatus. The observation, recording, and analysis of human behavior was undertaken on a massive scale in the laboratory, the field, and in everyday life, with the aim of prediction and control.

This account, developed in many histories of Cold War social science, has cast a shadow over description. However, the methods and ideologies of the human sciences were much more various in the period, and, while observation and description can serve the purposes of surveillance and social control, they also have many more meanings and uses. In the decades after WWII, observation and description were put to very different uses by renegade social scientists, for instance in the fields of ethnomethodology, interactional microsociology, and deviance studies. In these fields, as in postwar aesthetic practices such as direct cinema, new journalism, and durational performance, description was anything but reductive. Although many of these scholars were influenced by the behaviorism of the period, their fine-grained, exhaustive accounts attended to the specificity and the singularity of everyday life.

Description can serve many ends, and extraordinarily complex small worlds can grow up in the shadow of big science. These precepts are illustrated in the novels of Patricia Highsmith, whose work exemplifies the contradictions of description in the postwar period. Highsmith is an increasingly familiar icon of Cold War paranoia, her hard-boiled style perfectly suited to a world defined by gamesmanship and barely contained violence. The detailed accounts of everyday social scenes that characterize classic realism take on an air of menace in Highsmith’s novels, as the art of observation is always doubled by more nefarious activities of surveillance and stalking. Highsmith’s fiction encodes the general paranoia of the Cold War era as well as the more specific burden of secrecy borne by queers through the 1950s and ’60s. The double bluff of the closet adds layers of menace and self-consciousness to familiar games of cat and mouse. But the same qualities that make Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), and her Ripley series so unsettling also promise to tip over into a different kind of story—one in which observation might serve the ends of desire.

Highsmith’s work exemplifies the contradictions of description in the postwar period.

The Price of Salt is that book. First published in 1952, under a pseudonym, it is the most unlikely of midcentury novels—a lesbian romance novel with a happy ending. It is also a unicorn in Highsmith’s oeuvre, otherwise so closely identified with cold-blooded tales of forgery, murder, and mayhem. The Price of Salt is having a moment, even more so since the release of Todd Haynes’s beautiful film adaptation (Carol, 2015). But it remains difficult to account for the novel’s gorgeous portrayal of desire between women both in its time (at the height of McCarthyism) and in light of Highsmith’s well-documented homophobia, misogyny, and misanthropy. Highsmith’s mommy issues, also well documented, are in evidence in the quasi-incestuous erotics of the central love story. The story of a young and directionless woman who falls hopelessly in love with an elegant divorcée, The Price of Salt is a remarkable act of wish fulfillment, which turns the experience of maternal abandonment into an improbable fantasy of requited love.9, p. 12). For more on fantasy and mother-daughter erotics in the film, see “A Lesbian ‘Carol’ for Christmas,” Public Books, December 24, 2015. ]

The work of fantasy is in evidence in the passage that I analyze here, and it makes clear the split function of description in The Price of Salt. In this scene of first contact, Therese Belivet watches Carol Aird, noting each gesture and flicker of emotion. Like all of The Price of Salt, this scene is filtered through Therese’s consciousness and her highly attuned senses. As readers, we sometimes feel Therese’s spreading joy, these green tendrils of happiness alongside her. But mostly we watch. Therese often watches like a detective, attempting to decode the world, which in her case means decoding Carol’s actions. This anxious attempt to see what is behind visible appearances gives way in this passage to an attempt see the world for what it is, to observe and describe its most minor details. While this mode of looking has often been seen as the province of an objective, and therefore objectifying, social science, its appearance in this scene makes clear that description is not only about search and seizure: it can also be the sign of a relaxed epistemic grasp. By pointing repeatedly to Therese’s languor in the passage, Highsmith underlines that violence is neither the only motive nor the inevitable outcome of intensive looking.

If this passage of sexual awakening begins with a dream of obsession (“acute consciousness of Carol”; “as if she dreamed a dream in which Carol was the subject and the only figure”), it transitions toward ordinariness, the object world, and, especially, habit (“She set a paper bag on the table, and Therese knew that she had only gone to get a container of milk as Carol or she herself did very often at night”; “with one arm flung up as she always went to sleep”). In order to feel this first kiss, Therese needs to experience it as if it had already happened a thousand times. Therese strives to realize this kiss, experiencing it on earth rather than as it is in heaven. Highsmith distinguishes between an anxious, searching form of description (aligned explicitly with surveillance) and one that merely observes and records the world—noting the scratch on a moccasin, not as a clue or a symptom but as the signature of the world’s presence.

From Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952; Norton, 2004), pp. 188–89.


Therese’s sleep clung to her as she walked across the hotel lobby. She rode up in an elevator and she was acutely conscious of Carol beside her, as if she dreamed a dream in which Carol was the subject and the only figure. In the room, she lifted her suitcase from the floor to a chair, unlatched it and left it, and stood by the writing table, watching Carol. As if her emotions had been in abeyance all the past hours, or days, they flooded her now as she watched Carol opening her suitcase, taking out, as she always did first, the leather kit that contained her toilet articles, dropping it onto the bed. She looked at Carol’s hands, at the lock of hair that fell over the scarf tied around her head, at the scratch she had gotten days ago across the toe of her moccasin.

“What’re you standing there for?” Carol asked. “Get to bed, sleepyhead.”

“Carol, I love you.”

Carol straightened up. Therese stared at her with intense, sleepy eyes. Then Carol finished taking her pajamas from the suitcase and pulled the lid down. She came to Therese and put her hands on her shoulders. She squeezed her shoulders hard, as if she were exacting a promise from her, or perhaps searching her to see if what she said were real. Then she kissed Therese on the lips, as if they had kissed a thousand times before.

“Don’t you know I love you?” Carol said.

Carol took her pajamas into the bedroom, and stood for a moment, looking down at the basin.

“I’m going out,” Carol said. “But I’ll be back right away.”

Therese waited by the table while Carol was gone, while time passed indefinitely or maybe not at all, until the door opened and Carol came in again. She set a paper bag on the table, and Therese knew she had only gone to get a container of milk, as Carol or she herself did very often at night.

“Can I sleep with you?” Therese asked.

“Did you see the bed?”

It was a double bed. They sat up in their pajamas, drinking milk and sharing an orange that Carol was too sleepy to finish. Then Therese set the container of milk on the floor and looked at Carol who was sleeping already, on her stomach, with one arm flung up as she always went to sleep. Therese pulled out the light. Then Carol slipped her arm under her neck, and all the length of their bodies touched, fitting as if something had prearranged it. Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh. She had a vision of a pale white flower, shimmering as if seen in darkness, or through water. Why did people talk of heaven, she wondered.

Jump to remarks: Wai Chee Dimock, Heather Love, William Mills Todd III, J. Keith Vincent, Cynthia Wall



William Mills Todd III


I’ll call my position paper “description as an alibi for narrative,” partly in tribute to an excellent book on Tolstoy by my colleague Justin Weir, Leo Tolstoy and the Alibi of Narrative (2011), and partly to signal an evolution in my own thinking about description in narrative fiction. Such an evolution was prompted to a large extent by my reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which has encouraged me to think of description as a countermovement to plot, a dynamic process of seduction and subversion.

Narrative theory, unlike rhetoric or Cynthia Wall’s “thing theory,” has not, as a rule, been attentive to description. Early formalized narratology, articles by Roland Barthes and Seymour Chatman, for instance, disregard description entirely, attending instead to turns of plot.10 Early cognitive psychological studies such as those of Gordon Bower and John Black, developing “critical path analysis,” focused on the reception of narrative in terms of solving hermeneutic puzzles (i.e., “who did it”).11 Description was pretty much something that got in the way as the narratologist or subject of psychological analysis cut to the chase.

Vladimir Propp could elegantly boil the magic folktale down to 31 plot functions and 7 character types to perform them, but the nearly 18,000 trait-names in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary available for describing character in modern fictional narratives do not lend themselves to minimalist frameworks, especially when the personages of those novels change, evolve, and insist on their “roundness” rather than “flatness.”12 Early practitioners of formalized narratology, once they looked beyond plot analysis, soon came to acknowledge that narrative can be messy, slippery stuff, and that the edges of their concepts could become blurred, once they began dealing with concrete instances of fictional narrative.

Four examples illustrate this nuanced view of narrative and description. Gérard Genette, in an essay on “Boundaries of Narrative,” collapsed the difference between narrative and description, pointing out that nouns and verbs, the verbal stuff of narrative’s “account of an event or series of events,” do have descriptive force. He noted that Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust “pulverized” description, diffusing it with narrative’s succession of events.13

Seymour Chatman acknowledged that description can use narrative sentences but attempted to circumvent grammatical distinctions by turning to temporal ones: narrative has dual temporality, that of the sequence of events and that of the narratorial presentation, while description only has only the latter. But he goes on to show how each can serve the other.14 Barbara Smith wittily discarded the distinctions of formalized narratology altogether, turning to a notion of someone telling someone else that something worth telling happened.15 In S/Z Roland Barthes famously showed how the same brief segment of a fictional text could simultaneously serve plot, story, characterization, theme, and cultural reference.16 His theory and critical analysis completes the “pulverization” achieved by the great 19th-century novelists.

My reading of Tolstoy encouraged me to think of description as a counter-movement to plot, a dynamic process of seduction and subversion.

Before I turn to Tolstoy I must mention one further essay I have always found useful, Philippe Hamon’s “What Is a Description?” It is the most complete study I know of the techniques, varieties, and functions of description. Here, after rigorously cataloging the ways in which the great Realists made narrative an alibi for description and translating them into a finite set of formulae, Hamon goes on to articulate the strong thesis that description serves to negate narrative, to render it impossible, by impeding, retarding, enclosing narrative. The challenge to the realist author is to give this mass of material a role to play in the story, to make it not mere filler but a crucial factor in what Hamon calls a “dialectic of content.”17

Tolstoy, I suggest, answers this challenge. Long before the rise of New Criticism or reader-response criticism, Tolstoy argued for the “linkings” of his novel, for the interconnectedness of all its aspects and elements in producing the “meaning” of the novel.18 It would seem that in so doing he was falling into the trap Hamon suggests, that of making the novel a closed, non-referential system. Tolstoy, I think, escapes the trap not by producing the “slice of life” that Matthew Arnold famously proclaimed, but by taking advantage of his novel’s multiple plot lines, by setting them against each other, and by engaging his reader in the sensations and seductions of the natural scene.19

Let’s turn to my page from Anna Karenina, Part III, chapter 5. Levin, protagonist of a major plot line that contrasts with Anna’s plot line, is on his country estate, seeking to remake his life after a failed courtship in Moscow. He does this in two ways, intellectually, by writing a study of rural economics, centered on what he calls the “immutable character of the laborer,” and physically, by throwing himself into not just managing his estate, but working on it, losing himself in hard labor. The passage in question, in which Levin joins his peasants in mowing, has long attracted my students, especially male ones or athletic ones, but it has been ignored in the many critical studies of the novel, even book-length ones.

Focalized through Levin, the passage engages all of his senses: sight, smell (the “perfume” of the cut grass), hearing (the “whistling” of the whetstones against the blades), touch, and taste (the rye bread dipped in water). It is motivated, in Hamon’s terms, by the novelty of the experience, by the disorienting character of Levin’s experience, as he feels a sort of “runner’s high,” getting into the rhythm.

The intensity of the physical experience and the rhythm of the work are communicated not just lexically, but syntactically, with an unobtrusive rhythmic prose. The deft succession of short periods engages and seduces the reader, as the work engages and seduces Levin. It becomes easy for the reader to forget, as Levin forgets, that he has appeared late for work, has been slow in getting into rhythm, doesn’t know how to sharpen his scythe, hasn’t brought food to share, and is (out of calculation) selfishly overwhelming the peasants whom his theory reifies, even driving them to drink.

Description serves here not primarily as complement or retardation or decoration, but as a tale of countervailing experience, masking the process of Levin’s coming to realize the human inadequacy of his theories and the moral inadequacy of his activity as a landowner.

The following is adapted with a few changes from Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878), edited and with a revised translation from the Russian by George Gibian (Norton, 1995), pp. 230–33.


The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when his arms no longer seemed to swing the scythe, but the scythe itself his whole body, so conscious and full of life; and as if by magic, regularly and definitely without a thought being given to it, the work accomplished itself of its own accord. These were blessed moments. …

Levin did not notice how time passed. Had he been asked how long he had been mowing, he would have answered “half an hour,” although it was nearly noon. …

[The mowers rest for lunch. An old man shares his rye bread and water with Levin. The peasants and Levin take a nap.]

Levin looked round and hardly recognized the place, everything was so altered. A wide expanse of the meadow was already mown, and with its swaths of grass already giving off perfume, shone with a peculiar fresh brilliance in the oblique rays of the descending sun. The bushes by the river where the grass had been cut and the river itself with its curves, previously invisible, were now glittering like steel; and the people getting up and moving about, the steep wall of yet uncut grass, and the hawks soaring over the bare meadow, struck him as something quite new. When he was fully awake Levin began to calculate how much had been done and how much could still be done that day.

An extraordinary amount had been done by the forty-two men. The larger meadow, which in the days of serfdom had taken two men two days to mow, was all finished except some short patches at the corners. But Levin wanted to get as much as possible done that day, and it was vexatious to see the sun already declining. He was not feeling at all tired and was only longing to work again and to accomplish as much as possible.

“What do you think—could we manage to get Mashkin Heights mown today?” he asked the old man.

“Well, God willing, we might! The sun is not very high though. Perhaps—if the lads could have a little vodka!’ …

The sun had set behind the wood, the dew had already fallen. Only the mowers at the top of the hill were in sunlight, while in the valley, where the mists were rising, they were in cool, dewy shade. The work proceeded briskly.

The scented grass, cut down with a sound that showed how juicy it was, fell in high ridges. On the short swaths the mowers crowded together, their tin boxes clattering, their scythes ringing whenever they touched, the whetstones whistling upon the blades, urging each other on with merry cries.

Jump to remarks: Wai Chee Dimock, Heather Love, William Mills Todd III, J. Keith Vincent, Cynthia Wall



J. Keith Vincent


The descriptive passage that I have chosen to discuss is not from a novel, nor is it necessarily fictional. It belongs to a genre called the “prose sketch” that flourished in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century. One way of thinking of the prose sketch (called shaseibun in Japanese) is as a kind of elongated haiku that captures something essential about a bounded stretch of time, or a certain place. This particular piece, “While Waiting for Lunch,” was written by Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), a haiku poet and literary theorist who is best known for introducing new techniques of objective description to Japanese poetry and prose.

Before Shiki, Japanese writers had little interest in describing the external world. Japan’s literary language was a complex and largely autonomous ecosystem through which writers traveled on chains of association dictated by poetic precedent. Bush warblers, for example, would call forth a mention of plum blossoms, frogs would always be depicted singing beside limpid streams, kingfishers perched perforce in willow trees, and so on. These associations went back centuries to classical Japanese and Chinese precedents and determined what could and could not be discussed in literary texts, or depicted in paintings.

By the 17th century, poets writing in the less orthodox haikai style, like Matsuo Basho, had begun to reject these classical associations, but even by negating them they remained within their orbit. Thus Basho’s famous poem—“An old pond / the frog jumps in / the sound of the water”—surprises the reader not just because it describes what appears to be an ordinary scene in nature, but because of the way it inverts the expected associations: the limpid stream that was the habitat of frogs in classical poetry is replaced with a stagnant pond, and the singing of the frog with the sound of its splash. It was Masaoka Shiki’s project, developed in conversations with the Western-style painter Nakamura Fusetsu (1866−1943) in the 1890s, to break more completely with these webs of association and to use language to describe what the poet actually saw in his or her environment.

Before Shiki, Japanese writers had little interest in describing the external world.

It is hard to overestimate how radical this was at the time, and what a profound effect it would have on the Japanese writers who came after Shiki. In Shiki’s work, the ecosystem of language was brought to bear on the natural ecosystem for the first time. Shiki called his poems “haiku,” taking the first syllable of haikai and adding “ku,” or “verse.” In columns written for the newspaper Nihon, he promoted the genre as a form especially well-suited to describing the poet’s subjective encounter with the objective world of nature. Thus as the inventor of modern haiku, and an early promoter of shaseibun as a kind of “haiku in prose,” it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Masaoka Shiki brought empirical description to Japanese literature for the first time. Now that haiku has spread beyond Japan to become the world’s most recognizable poetic form, Shiki’s work has a great deal to offer anyone interested in the history and techniques of description in the context of world literature.

Most of what has been written about Masaoka Shiki adheres to one of two narratives. In the first narrative, Shiki is said to have liberated Japanese literature from its ossified poetic traditions, making it possible for the first time for Japanese writers to grasp hold of language as a tool and describe the world “as it really is [aru ga mama ni].” This narrative portrays Shiki as a heroic modernizer, an iconoclast, and a revolutionary. It is also imbued with the disdain for tradition and the blind belief in progress characteristic of postwar modernization theory. The second narrative comes from poststructuralist critics of modernization theory. In this account, Shiki’s attempt to observe and describe the world “as it really is” is cast as a form of empiricism that is at best naive, and at worst complicit with the phonocentric ideology of modern nationalism. For poststructuralist critics writing in the 1990s, Shiki was guilty of reducing language to a set of transparent signifiers and thereby helping to instantiate a mystified and ideologically suspect understanding of reality as somehow prediscursive and therefore unimpeachable. “The written word for him [Shiki],” writes the critic Karatani Kojin, in a typical account, “was merely a means of transcription.”20 It is hard to imagine a more damning thing to say about a poet.

Neither of these narratives is adequate as a description of Shiki’s project. The modernizationist narrative misses the fact that Shiki did not simply reject the Japanese poetic tradition, but was also its most devoted and methodical student. To cite just one example, he spent years modeling the old literary ecosystem and creating a massive database of his poetic antecedents. His work Haiku Categorized (Haiku bunrui ) catalogues 120,000 17-syllable verses culled from five centuries of earlier texts and grouped according to season, form, and content. It remains in print today, and is still used by poets wishing to situate their work within the web of words that constitute Japan’s poetic tradition.

The poststructuralist critics, for their part, miss Shiki’s deep knowledge and attachment to poetic language for its own sake. Even more importantly, their obsession with debunking the notion that there is a “reality” out there to be described may have prevented them from taking seriously Shiki’s attempts to describe the world or trying to understand what it meant to him and his contemporaries, or what we might learn from it. I am writing a book on Shiki now in which I try to return to his work with fresh eyes, to recapture something of the sense of wonder he and other members of his circle experienced as they set themselves the awesome task of describing reality “just as it is.”

The Japanese prose sketch balances objective description with the subjective state of mind of the writer doing the description.

What exactly defines the Japanese prose sketch as a genre? Typically brief and written in vernacular Japanese, shaseibun as practiced by Shiki and his fellow writers centered around the journal Hototogisu describe evocative scenes of anything from natural scenery and local customs to coal mines, urban slums, and the horrors of the battlefield. They are rarely plot-driven, often humorous, and tend to be written in the first person and the present tense. While they often present themselves as autobiographical, they can also be fictional and imaginative, sometimes narrating events in the afterworld, from the distant past, or, in one famous example (Natsume Soseki’s hybrid of shaseibun and novel, I Am a Cat), from the perspective of a cat airing his opinions about his human master.

Shaseibun tend to focus not on psychological interiority, but rather on exterior actions and appearances. They often have a slightly ironic and distant stance vis-à-vis what they describe. This derives partly from their connection with haiku. It was also an implicit critique of Japan’s unique brand of “naturalist” fiction that emerged in the early 20th century. While its European cousin and namesake strove for scientific objectivity, Japanese “naturalism” took a highly subjective form. Indeed, novels written under this banner, such as Tayama Katai’s 1907 work The Quilt [Futon], were so mired in confessional self-absorption that the genre eventually came to be called the “I-novel.” Thus if “I-novels” are restricted to the worlds inside their narrators’ heads, shaseibun, while still acknowledging the subjectivity of the narrator, are capable of representing a much larger slice of the world.

Shaseibun, moreover, were not solely the province of professional writers. Starting in 1903, just after Shiki’s death following a long battle with tuberculosis, the editors of Hototogisu began to solicit contributions of shaseibun from readers and to publish the ones they judged the best. Contributions were solicited under categories such as the “one-day,” “one-hour,” or even “one-minute,” diary, in which readers were encouraged to record their daily routines and describe what they did at work. Shaseibun poured in from a huge range of men and women, young and old, representing virtually every class and region of Japan.

A partial list by occupation of the people whose contributions were published from 1903 to 1909 includes a number of farmers, elementary school teachers, priests, miners, soldiers, and rickshaw pullers as well as a physicist, a surveyor, a rice seed merchant, a bookstore owner, a sake brewer, a botanical garden keeper, and a lighthouse keeper. Once published, these pieces provided readers with a detailed insider’s view of the lives and occupations of people different from themselves. Being written in a newly modernized and standardized vernacular Japanese interspersed with judicious doses of regional dialect, they gave readers a nicely balanced combination of linguistic accessibility and local color, fostering along the way a new and powerful sense of national community.

In a 1907 essay on shaseibun, Shiki’s close friend the novelist Natsume Soseki writes that the genre balances objective description with the subjective state of mind of the writer doing the description. Shiki’s 1899 sketch “While Waiting for Lunch” is a beautiful example of this, and was probably one of Soseki’s sources for his theorization. I present it here in my translation, along with annotations, to give some sense of how the genre works.

Masaoka Shiki’s “While Waiting for Lunch” was originally published in Hototogisu, vol. 3, no. 1 (October 10, 1899), and is translated here from the Japanese by J. Keith Vincent.


I quit eating breakfast a long time ago, but sick man that I am, I do get hungry, so I wait impatiently for lunch every day. Today the noon gun has already gone off, and still no lunch. I have no books and no inkstone beside my pillow. Not a page of the paper left unread. Having no other choice, I rest my elbow on my futon, my chin in my hand, and stare out absentmindedly at my garden.

The sky is cloudy with the remains of the storm from two days ago. The line of ten cockscomb flowers took some damage, but now they are standing tall again, their dark red heads sorted into a straight line. The red-leafed amaranth has its showy leaves on display, their color reflected in the white laundry put out to dry. Some crazy tall thing—perhaps a “kiss-me-over-the garden-gate”—drapes its pale red flowers over the amaranth.

A minute ago three children came to the garden chasing after a kitten. Once they caught it they left, but it appears they are still playing with it; their boisterous voices are audible outside the garden wall. They are hitting it with a piece of bamboo or something and it lets out a series of thin, sad meow’s. At this point I hear the voice of the one called Taka-chan saying, with theatrical concern,

“Toshi-chan! If you hit it like that it will come back to haunt you! It will turn into a ghost!”

Toshi-chan, the youngest, will be five this year, and is not impressed.

“A ghost my foot!” she says, and hits the kitten even harder. Its cries become more and more anguished. The three confer over something, and then Toshi-chan says in a worried voice,

“Taka-chan! Taka-chan! If you keep hitting it like that it will come back!”

This time it is Taka-chan, who will soon be six, who appears to be doing the hitting. Some time passes; then peals of laughter. Toshi-chan has picked the kitten up.

“Kitty! Kitty! Kitty! is doing very well, thank you very much!” she says in a loud voice, and goes off somewhere with the cat in her arms.

No lunch yet.

A little yellow butterfly flutters up and circles the laundry, only to fly away again, taking a quick sniff of a far-off four-o’clock before it disappears behind the bush clover.

The quail don’t seem to have had lunch either. They make a rustling racket in their cages.

The banging sound of plates and cups comes from the kitchen.

Running out of things to look at, I look up to the sky, where a sheet of white and black clouds zooms toward the northeast. Gradually the white ones start to outnumber the black. A spot of blue opens up and I feel happy.

Those three children are back outside the garden wall. This time they seem to be having fun torturing the kitten by stuffing it into the garbage bin. Before long the housewife across the street, Taka-chan’s mother, comes over and lets them have it.

“Taka-chan! You are not to hurt that cat! If you torture it like that it will turn into a ghost tonight and come to get you! Let it go this instant!”

At this, Taka-chan sniffles out an excuse, “It wasn’t me who caught the kitty, it was Toshi-chan!”

Toshi-chan is embarrassed; a silence ensues.

Crack! The sun bursts in onto the tatami. Lunch has arrived.

Jump to remarks: Wai Chee Dimock, Heather Love, William Mills Todd III, J. Keith Vincent, Cynthia Wall



Cynthia Wall


We have been invited to “theorize, historicize, and/or describe (!) description”; I’d like to do a bit of each. In my book The Prose of Things I summarize a few of the day jobs of description: it “comprises lists, crawls over things, acts as narrative relief, employs figures, behaves as ornament, misbehaves as obstacle, achieves archaeology, to name just a few of its ‘propriétés & circonstances’ … that shift shape over the centuries.”21 But as I’ve been working on my new project, which looks at how the grammatical and typographical landscapes of the 18th century were shaped by some of the same forces and into similar patterns as the English landscaped garden, I’ve been working with another feature of 18th-century literary description that I hadn’t quite noticed or articulated before: its mimesis not of visual reality but of plot. Sometimes the syntax of description patterns what it describes. Gérard Genette said that “even a verb [can be] more or less descriptive in the precision that it gives to the spectacle of the action”22; so too can an entire descriptive passage
behave like a verb, repeating in word, image, pattern, or syntax the thing it describes. In a particular version of Edward Casey’s “moving surface,” I want to look at description in action.23

I had also declared that description “in one way or another makes something visible, sets it forth, extracts it from its surroundings, and jabs a finger meaningfully at it.”24 Now I want to take description itself as the object, extract it from its surroundings, and jab a finger at it, in order to show that sometimes it can’t be extracted—the form engloves its content. I come at this through my recent work on the rise of punctuation and prepositions in 18th-century literature.25 Here, I want to look at two passages, one from Daniel Defoe at the beginning of the century and one from Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770), the latter as a descriptive template for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Both of them employ parataxis, in both implied and coordinated conjunctions, to create a landscape on the page that is sculpted to display what they’re talking about—using their technologies of print and grammar to allow description to act
rather than just to interrupt.26. C. F. Partington, The Printer’s Guide (London, 1825): it is a “practice, too common with some authors, of keeping their proof-sheets too long in their hands”—because the “pleasure arising from beholding, as it were, the ‘form and texture’ of one’s thoughts, is a sensation easier felt than described” (n.p., my emphasis). And Joseph Moxon himself recognized in his 1683 Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing the importance of the author’s pointing. ]

An entire descriptive passage can behave like a verb, repeating in word, image, pattern, or syntax the thing it describes.

Both of these examples are long, so I’d like mostly to look at them. I’ll describe the descriptions a bit. Robinson Crusoe describes as many as eight times the building of his “Habitation” (also variously called his “Fortification” and his “Castle”) on his deserted island. The first, extremely detailed description uses coordinative parataxis—the repetition of conjunctions within long, many-claused sentences—to create a syntax that reinforces the fortification. “Then I took the Pieces of Cable which I had cut in the Ship, and laid them in Rows one upon another”; “and this Fence was so strong”; “and so I was compleatly fenced in, and fortify’d,” “and consequently slept secure in the Night.”27 The rest of the descriptions themselves function paratactically in that their very repetition reinforces the walls. Repetition is comfort, after all: think music and prayers.

The second description acknowledges the existence of the first, but still redescribes its central features, calling it and raising it, for now he adds a turf wall and some tree boughs as camouflage. The third appears in his transcribed journal, which makes it the originary description, but then he interjects a retrospective Nota Bene that promises to omit what was described before—which instead repeats all the essential details of time and space. The next version stakes out the fundamental point that “if any People were to come on Shore there, they would not perceive any Thing like a Habitation.” There is yet another version that I did not include in my selection, which hammers that point home again: “As for my Wall made, as before, with long Stakes or Piles, those Piles grew all like Trees, and were by this Time grown so big, and spread so very much, that there was not the least Appearance to any one’s View of any Habitation behind them.”28

Crusoe wants above all things in this world domestic security—as much as or more than the grace of God. His narrative strategy combines with his literal efforts to produce the perfect architectural cipher: an invisible structure, a habitation looking nothing like a habitation. The main and inset texts syntactically and thematically entwine with the self-covering hedge of his outer wall. Within the narrative sequence, the amount of description he devotes to the building process absorbs as much of his energy as the actual physical labor spent. Action is fortified by recollection; fortification itself is strengthened by narrative repetition. Crusoe’s labors of seclusion are reinforced syntactically by his labors of description. (Though I am very sorry to note that just three pages after the last re-hammered description of his fortification, he encounters the Footprint and scampers frantically home, ready to tear it all down.)

The Whately passage, from his enormously popular and influential Observations on Modern Gardening (1770), describes the approach to Caversham, the seat of Lord Cadogan in Oxfordshire.29 The “approach” was a late 18th-century concept and term, defining the road or drive to the great house. As opposed to the avenue, a broad straight approach that made the house loom larger and the visitor feel smaller with every step, the approach was designed “to form new combinations” in the mind of the spectator.30 You don’t see the house until a bend in the approach makes it burst out upon you. You, in the meanwhile, are looking ahead and on each side as every motion of the carriage brings something new into view. Whately’s description of the approach to Caversham syntactically and punctuationally reproduces the physical experience.

These examples of description in action become one reconciliatory answer to the strand of binary narrate-or-describe criticism through the centuries.

Thomas Jefferson carried the Observations with him on his visits to country estates and found it vividly reliable. I find it rhetorically extraordinary. It occupies one paragraph of nine sentences over four quarto pages. Each sentence presents a different thematic experience through a series of paratactic clauses: the experience of the bends in the road, from the wide-angle lens on the large arc of approach from lodge to mansion in the first sentence, to “some new scene to the view” of the rest—the park, the clumps, the sorts of trees, the approach to the edge of the estate, the topography, and so on. Whately concludes: “The ground, without being broken into diminutive parts, is cast into an infinite number of elegant shapes.”31 Although each sentence of Whately’s might be said to be broken into rather diminutive parts, clausally speaking, the four-page paragraph is judicially distributed into a number of elegant clumps. The paragraph becomes a demonstration of the new approach and against the old avenue; the syntax of the description enacts the experience it describes.

This description by Whately had me reread the first chapter of volume three of Pride and Prejudice, a novel as much a part of the literary commons as Robinson Crusoe. It opens with Elizabeth, in the company of her aunt and uncle Gardiner, visiting Mr. Darcy’s country estate, Pemberley, in Derbyshire. Her first internal response is critically well-covered—“To be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”—as is the tour of the house. But a lot of readers (at least my students) tend to skip over the surprisingly lengthy, detailed description of the approach to Pemberley—presumably because it’s a lengthy, detailed, interruptive description. But Whately gives it a more interactive context. The first four paragraphs of the chapter track the approach to the house, describing the park and the drive through Elizabeth’s thoughts on both: it has a “great variety of ground,” a “beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent,” which Elizabeth sees and admires in thoughtful silence; “They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound.”32

The paragraphs themselves, each short and quickly turned, arrange an approach that flickers rapidly between the psychological and the spatial points of view. The tour of the house is followed by the famous moment when Darcy, like his house earlier, abruptly appears. Then follows another extended tour of the grounds (two pages) in which “they pursued the accustomed circuit,” which includes a hanging woods, the water, a bridge, a valley, a glen, a stream, a narrow walk, a coppice-wood, windings … and then, “Whilst wandering on in this slow manner, they were again surprised … by the sight of Mr. Darcy approaching them.”33 In the context of description-enacting-narration, Darcy is the approach, forming new combinations in Elizabeth’s head and bursting upon her windings.

These examples of description in action thus become one reconciliatory answer to the strand of binary narrate-or-describe criticism through the centuries: from the 16th-century critics who despised “too much surplusage,” to Dryden advising against it as “trifling Ornament,” to Marmontel complaining of it as a “modern invention, of which … neither reason nor taste approve,” to Johnson warning that “the mind is refrigerated by interruption,” to Genette’s “ever-necessary, ever submissive, never-emancipated slave.” Description, sometimes, is not simply mastering a disguise, to use José Manuel Lopes’s phrase; sometimes it is narrative, it is plot.34

From Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, 3rd ed. (W. Taylor, 1719), pp. 68–9, 77–8, 88, 89, 179.


Before I set up my Tent, I drew a half Circle before the hollow Place, which took in about Ten Yards in its Semi-diameter from the Rock, and twenty Yards in its Diameter, from its Beginning and Ending.

In this half Circle I pitch’d two Rows of strong Stakes, driving them into the Ground till they stood very firm like Piles, the biggest End being out of the Ground about five Foot and a Half, and sharpen’d on the Top; the two Rows did not stand above six Inches from one another.

Then I took the Pieces of Cable which I had cut in the Ship, and laid them in Rows one upon another, within the Circle between these two Rows of Stakes, up to the Top, placing other Stakes in the In-side, leaning against them, about two Foot and a half high, like a Spur to a Post, and this Fence was so strong, that neither Man or Beast could get into it or over it: This cost me a great deal of Time and Labour, especially to cut the Piles in the Woods, bring them to the Place, and drive them into the Earth.

The Entrance to this Place I made to be not by a Door, but by a short Ladder, to go over the Top, which Ladder, when I was in, I lifted over after me, and so I was compleatly fenced in, and fortify’d, as I thought, from all the World, and consequently slept secure in the Night …

I have already describ’d my Habitation, which was a Tent under the Side of a Rock, surrounded with a strong Pale of posts and Cables, but I might now rather call it a wall, for I rais’d a kind of Wall up against it of Turfs, about two Foot thick on the Out-side, and after some time, I think it was a Year and half, I rais’d the Rafters from it leaning to the Rock, and thatch’d or cover’d it with Bows of Trees …

Jan.3. I began my Fence or Wall; which, being still jealous of my being attack’d by some Boddy, I resolv’d to make very thick and strong.


N.B. This Wall being describ’d before, I purposely omit what was said in the Journal; it is sufficient to observe, that I was no less Time than from the 3d of January to the 14th of April, working, finishing, and perfecting this Wall, tho’ it was no more than about 24 Yards in Length, being a half Circle from one Place in the Rock to another Place about eight Yards from it, the Door of the Cave being in the Center behind it. …


When this Wall was finished, and the Out-side double fenc’d with a Turf-Wall rais’d up close to it, I persuaded myself, that if any People were to come on Shore there, they would not perceive any Thing like a Habitation …

As for my Wall made, as before, with long Stakes or Piles, those Piles grew all like Trees, and were by this Time grown so big, and spread so very much, that there was not the least Appearance to any one’s View of any Habitation behind them.

From Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening (T. Payne, 1770), pp. 140–144. (For lamentable technical reasons, the original, uninterrupted text has here been broken up into its “elegant clumps,” or sentence-long paragraphs.—Ed.)


The approach to Caversham, though a mile in length, and not once in sight of the house, till close upon it, yet can never be mistaken for any other way than it is; a passage only through a park is not introduced with so much distinction, so precisely marked, or kept in such preservation.

On each side of the entrance is an elegant lodge; the interval between them is a light open palisade, crossing the whole breadth of a lovely valley; the road is conducted along the bottom, continually winding in natural easy sweeps, and presenting at every bend some new scene to the view; at last it gently slants up the side of a little rise to the mansion, where the eminence, which seemed inconsiderable, is found to be a very elevated situation, to which the approach, without once quiting [sic] the valley, had been insensibly ascending all the way.

In its progress, it never breaks the scenes through which it passes; the plantations and the glades are continued without interruption, quite across the valley; the opposite sides have a relation to each other, not answering, not contrasted, but connected; nor does the disposition ever seem to have been made with any attention to the road; but the scenes still belong purely to the park; each of them is preserved entire; and avails itself of all the space which the situation will allow.

At the entrance the slopes are very gentle, with a few large hawthorns, beeches, and oaks, scattered over them; these are thickened by the perspective as the valley winds; and just at the bend, a large clump hangs on a bold ascent, from whence different groupes [sic], growing gradually less and less till they end in single trees, stretch quite away to a fine grove, which crowns the opposite brow: the road passes between the groupes, under a light and lofty arch of ash; and then opens upon a glade, broken on the left only by a single tree; and on the right by several beeches standing so close together as to be but one in appearance: this glade is bounded by a beautiful grove, which in one part spreads a perfect gloom, but in others divides into different clusters, which leave openings for the gleams of light to pour in between them.

It extends to the edge, and borders for some way the side, of a collateral dale, which retires slowly from the view; and in which the falls of the ground are more tame, the bottom more flattened, than in the principal valley; the banks of this also near the junction, are more gentle than before; but on the opposite side, the steeps and the clumps still continue; and amongst them is a fine knole [sic], from which descend two or three groupes of large trees, feathering down to the bottom, and by the pendency of their branches favouring the declivity.

To these succeeds an open space, diversified only with a few scattered trees; and in the midst of it, some magnificent beeches crouding [sic] together, overshadow the road, which is carried through a narrow darksome passage between them: soon after it rises under a thick wood in the garden up to the house, where it suddenly bursts out upon a rich, and extensive prospect, with the town and the churches of Reading full in sight, and the hills of Windsor forest in the horizon.

Such a view at the end of a long avenue, would have been, at the best, but a compensation for the tediousness of the way; but here the approach is as delightful as the termination: yet even in this, a similarity of style may be said to prevail; but it has every variety of open plantations; and these are not confusedly thrown together, but formed into several scenes, all of them particularly marked: one is characterised by a grove; the next by clumps; and others by little groupes, or single trees: The plantations sometimes cover only the brow, and retire along the top from the view; sometimes they seem to be suspended on the edge, or the sides, of the descents; in one place they leave the bottom clear; in another they overspread the whole valley: the intervals are often little less than lawns; at other times they are no more that [sic] narrow glades between the groves; or only small openings in the midst of a plantation.

The ground, without being broken into diminutive parts, is cast into an infinite number of elegant shapes, in every gradation from the most gentle slope, to a very precipitate fall: the trees also are of several kinds, and their shadows of various tints; those of the horse-chesnuts [sic] are dark; the beeches spread a broader but less gloomy obscurity; and they are often so vast, they swell out in a succession of such enormous masses, that, though contiguous, a deep shade sinks in between them, and distinguishes each immense individual: such intervals are in some places filled up with other species; the maples are of so extraordinary a size, that they do not appear inconsiderable, when close to the forest trees; large hawthorns, some oaks, and in one part many, perhaps too many limes, the remains of former avenues, are intermixed; and amongst all these often rise the tallest ash, whose lighter foliage only chequers the turf beneath, while their peculiar hue diversifies the greens of the groupes they belong to.

After enumerating the beauties of this approach, and reflecting that they are confined within a narrow valley, without views, buildings, or water, another can hardly be conceived so destitute of the means of variety, as to justify the sameness of an avenue.

Jump to remarks: Wai Chee Dimock, Heather Love, William Mills Todd III, J. Keith Vincent, Cynthia Wall icon

  1. Richard Brown, “Molly’s Gibraltar: The Other Location in Joyce’s Ulysses,” in A Companion to James Joyce, edited by Richard Brown (Blackwell, 2008), p. 158.
  2. Quoted in ibid., p. 166.
  3. James Joyce, Ulysses, edited by Hans Walter Gabler (Vintage, 1986), p. 627.
  4. Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, 2nd ed. (University of California Press, 1988), p. 623.
  5. Quoted in Jack Cowart et al., Matisse in Morocco (Thames & Hudson, 1990), p. 94.
  6. Ulysses, p. 46.
  7. Ibid., p. 47.
  8. J. S. Atherton, “Islam and the Koran in Finnegans Wake,” Comparative Literature, vol. 6, no. 3 (Summer 1954), p. 240.
  9. Patricia White traces the relation between wish fulfillment, fantasy, and loss in a reading of Haynes’s film Carol. White comments that “viewers luxuriate in the sheer impossibility” of this romance; she also notes that Highsmith wrote the novel in a literal fever dream, while she had chicken pox (“Sketchy Lesbians: Carol as History and Fantasy,” Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 2 [2015
  10. See Roland Barthes, “Introduction à l’analyse structural des récits,” Communications, vol. 8 (1966), pp. 1–27; Seymour Chatman, “New Ways of Analyzing Narrative Structure, with an Example from Joyce’s Dubliners,” Language and Style, vol. 2 (1969), pp. 3–36.
  11. John B. Black and Gordon H. Bower, “Story Understanding as Problem-Solving,” Poetics, vol. 9 (1980), pp. 223–50.
  12. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd ed., translated from the Russian by Laurence Scott (University of Texas Press, 1968). On the multiplicity of English trait-names see Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 125, note 38.
  13. Gérard Genette, “Frontières du récit,” Communications, vol. 11 (1966), pp. 152–63.
  14. Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 6–21.
  15. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories,” in On Narrative, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell (University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 209–32.
  16. Roland Barthes, S/Z, translated from the French by Richard Miller (Hill & Wang, 1974).
  17. Philippe Hamon, “Qu’est-ce qu’une description?” Poétique: revue de théorie et d’analyse littéraires, vol. 12 (1972), pp. 465–85.
  18. Leo Tolstoy, letter to N. Strakhov, April 23–26, 1876, in Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii I pisem, 90 vols. (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1928–58), vol. 13, p. 55.
  19. Matthew Arnold, “Count Leo Tolstoy,” in Essays in Criticism: Second Series (London: Macmillan, 1898), p. 258.
  20. Karatani Kojin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, translated from the Japanese by Brett de Bary et al. (Duke University Press, 1993), p. 60.
  21. Cynthia Sundberg Wall, The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century (The University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 21.
  22. Gérard Genette, Figures of Literary Discourse, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 134. Here Genette is recovering Aristotle, who recommends using verbs of motion, especially present participles and adverbial phrases, in creating vivid representation.
  23. Edward S. Casey, “Literary Description and Phenomenological Method,” Yale French Studies, no. 61 (1981), p. 199.
  24. Wall, Prose of Things, p. 13.
  25. By the second half of the 18th century, there was an enormous surge in the publication of English grammars—over two hundred appeared. This is often taken to be part of the push to standardize the King’s English, a “prescriptivist” linguistics, but it’s actually a lot more interesting and a lot more paradoxical than that. I argue that the changing topography of the page—the decapitation of the common noun, the uprighting of italics for proper names and places, and the new patterns of punctuation—was a microcosmic, indeed mimetic, version of the changes in perspective, in the concept of “approach,” developed through the reshaped landscapes of the English countryside.
  26. John Smith, in The Printer’s Grammar (London, 1755): compositors “ought to submit to the method, or even humour, of Authors, and authorized Correctors, rather than give them room to exclaim about spoiling the sense of the subject, because the Points are not put Their right way” (p. 88). He warmly approves of “Gentlemen who have regard to make the reading of their Works consonant with their own delivery, point their Copy accordingly, and abide thereby, with strictness,” although he acknowledges that such careful ownership is not universal: “Were it done by every Writer, Compositors would sing, Jubile!” (p. 88). John Baskerville, in his edition of Congreve’s plays, commiserates with Pierre Bayle, who, “in his Preface to the first Edition of his Dictionary, speaks of the Vexation of ineffectual Supervising the Press, in Terms so feeling, that they move Compassion in his Reader; and concludes the Paragraph touching it, in these Words, ‘Je l’oublie autant que Je puis, animus meminisse horret’” [I forget it as much as I am able, my soul shudders to remember
  27. Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, 3rd ed. (W. Taylor, 1719), pp. 68–69 (my emphasis).
  28. Ibid., p. 179.
  29. Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening (T. Payne, 1770), pp. 140–144.
  30. J. C. Loudon, A Treatise on Forming, Improving, and Managing Country Residences; and on the Choice of Situations Appropriate to Every Class of Purchasers (Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806), vol. 2, p. 591.
  31. Ibid., p. 143.
  32. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, edited by R. W. Chapman (Oxford University Press, 1923), p. 245.
  33. Ibid., p. 253.
  34. See Georg Lukács, “Narrate or Describe?” (1936), in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, edited by Arthur Kahn (1970); George Puttenham, Art of English Poesy (1589), p. 215; John Dryden, Du Fresnoy’s De Arte Graphica (1695), p. xxxvi; Jean-François Marmontel, quoted in Philippe Hamon, “Rhetorical Status of the Descriptive,” translated from the French by Patricia Baudoin, Yale French Studies, no. 61 (1981), p. 8; Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare” (1765), Yale Edition of the Works of Johnson, vol. 7, edited by Arthur Sherbo (Yale University Press, 1968), p. 111; Genette, Figures, p. 134; José Manuel Lopes, Foregrounded Description in Prose Fiction: Five Cross-Literary Studies (University of Toronto Press, 1995), p. 5.
Featured image: Illustration of Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” by Scott Pickard