Reading Like a Writer: Marilynne Robinson II

These two sentences are from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”

Some sentences just make me happy. These do. Why, though? What can we learn from them as writers?

  • The first sentence characterizes two characters. It shows what the characters want (to prepare another person for an absence/death due to being with “the Good Lord” and for the relationship to continue, though stated indirectly, “I don’t think you’re old”). It shows these desires through reported dialogue.
    • There is a degree of tension between the two sentences but especially within the first.
      • Much of this tension is a result of the captured dialogue, specifically the shortness of the second speaker’s first two replies: where and why.
      • There is also tension because of the content of the first sentence as well: I’m old! and, no, you’re not.
      • Also, because this is reported dialogue, it is recalled dialogue. The speaker is not trying to forget it. Readers might read it as recalled with fondness.
    • Readers are also likely to be asking the same questions as the second character in the first sentence. Where are you going? I’ve barely started reading about you! Why are you going to be with the Good Lord?
  • In the second sentence, readers continue to be shown the relationship between the characters. The sentences, to paraphrase a cliche, complete each other. The second sentence continues characterization with an action, more dialogue, and a reaction.
    • The action is a variation on a cliche. Specifically, the variation expands “you put your hand in mine” to “you put your hand in my hand.” This allows “hand” to be repeated; the same sound is heard twice. The repeated shard sound, at the same time, is preceded by your and mine, suggesting similarities coming together despite differences.
    • The recalled dialogue in the second sentence is a revision of dialogue from the first sentence, from “I don’t think you’re old” to “You aren’t very old” in the second. This is kind of a concession, from unambiguously old to not very old. Given some of the content of the first sentence (death and going to the Good Lord) it seems hopeful.
    • The reaction, “as if that settled it,” raises all kinds of almost philosophical questions. “How can human love stand against time?” “What does it mean to ‘face reality?'” “How do we reconcile the joy possible in the present moment with the anxiety of our last moments, even if we can expect the be with the Good Lord? If we can?”
  • There are five “ands” and a period in the first sentence. Then two “ands” a period in the second.
    • Conjunctions and punctuation matter.
    • They shape momentum and end it.
    • They help control readers’ experiences with writers’ words.

Certainly more could be said about these sentences. What do you think? What do these sentences make you want to try?

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