Inspired by some things I’ve read, I wanted to try out something different today. The goal here is to simply get us thinking deeply about the way we read and analyze passages. There are a lot of questions here, and I cannot stress enough that there is no right answer to any of them. The process of coming up with an answer, however, will hopefully help analytic skills.

An excerpt from In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass


1    Their hair in curlers and their heads wrapped in loud scarves,
2    young mothers fattish in trousers, lounge about in the speed-wash, smok-
3    ing cigarettes, eating candy, thumbing magazines, and scream-
4    ing at their children above the whir and rumble of the machines.
5    At the bank a young man freshly pressed is letting himself in with
6    a key. Along the street, delicately teetering, many grandfathers move in a
7    dream. During the murderous heat of summer, they perch on window 
8    ledges, their feet dangling just inside the narrow shelf of shade the store
9    has made, staring steadily into the street. Where their consciousness has
10   gone I can't say. It's not in the eyes. Perhaps it's diffuse, all temperature and 
11   skin, like an infant's, though more mild. Near the corner there are several 
12   large overalled men employed in standing. A truck turns to be weighed on 
13   the scales at the Feed and Grain. Images drift on the drugstore window. 
14   The wind has blown the smell of cattle into town. Our eyes have been 
15   driven in like the eyes of the old men. And there's no one to have mercy 
16   on us.

The Church

1    Friday night. Girls in dark skirts and white blouses sit in ranks and scream
2    in concert. They carry funnels loosely stuffed with orange and black paper
3    which they shake wildly, and small megaphones through which, as drilled,
4    they direct and magnify their shouting. Their leaders, barely pubescent
5    girls, prace and shake and whirl their skirts above their bloomers. The
6    young men, leaping, extend their arms and race through puddles of amber
7    light, their bodies glistening. In a lull, though it rarely occurs, you can hear
8    the squeak of tennis shoes against the floor. Then the yelling begins again,
9    and then continues; fathers, mothers, and neighbors joining in to form a single
10   pulsing ululation--a cry of the whole community--for in this gymnasium
11   each body becomes the bodies beside it, pressed as they are together, thigh
12   to thigh, and the same shudder runs through all of them, and runs toward
13   the same release. Only the ball moves serenely through this dazzling din. 
14   Obedient to law it scarcely speaks but caroms quietly and lives at peace.


Reader and Purpose

1. What impression do you think Mr. Gass conveys about the women in the laundromat? What about the old men who “perch on window ledges”? And the people at the basketball game? Be able to support your answers.


2. The first two sentences of the second paragraph of “People” flow together nicely, yet they are not linked either by a connection like therefore or however or by repetition of a key word. What does unify them? When you compare the images in these two sentences, is irony suggested?

3. Is there a topic statement in this second paragraph? If not, could you supply one? Is there, in other words, a controlling idea which determines the writer’s selection of details.

4. Has “The Church” a topic sentence? What slight change in the scene occurs in the sentence beginning in line 7 of this paragraph? Is there another change in the following sentence?


5. The opening sentence of “People” is long and complicated. Is its main clause at the beginning, in he middle, or at the end? Point out the parallel elements in this sentence.

6. Suppose that first sentence were broken down into several shorter ones:

The younger mothers lounge about the speedwash. They are fattish in trousers. They wear their hair in curlers and wrap their heads in loud scarves. While they wait they smoke cigarettes, eat candy, drink pop, or thumb through magazines. Now and then they scream at their children above the whir and rumble of the machines.

Has our perception of the scene been modified? Does this scene seem less unified or more?

7. Comment on how these revisions change the meaning or emphasis of Mr. Gass’s sentences:

(a) Revision: Our eyes have been driven in like the eyes of old men and there’s no one to have mercy on us.
Gass: “Our eyes have been driven in like the eyes of the old men. And there’s no one to have mercy on us.” (“People,” 14-16)

(b) Revision: The leaping young men extend their arms and race through puddles of amber light, their bodies glistening.
Gass: “The young men, leaping, extend their arms and race through puddles of amber light, their bodies glistening.” (“The Church,” 5-7)

8. “Friday night” (line 1 of “The Church) is a fragment. Would it be an improvement to write it out in a formally complete sentence: “It is Friday night”?

9. What is the grammatical name of the construction “their bodies glistening” (“The Church,” 7)?


10. Look up: consciousness (9), diffuse (10); pubescent (4), lull (7), pulsing ululation (10), serenely (13).

11. Why are the following alternates less effective than Mr. Gass’s words? Stout for fattish (2), wait for lounge (2), walking for teetering (6), sit for perch (7); jump for prance (5), movement for shudder (12), deafening for dazzling (13).

12. Which of Mr. Gass’ words convey especially sharp visual images? Which convey aural images? Does he appeal to any sense other than vision and hearing?

13. What kind of figure of speech is “puddles of amber light” (“The Church,” 6-7)? Do you like it? Why or why not?

14. The description of the basketball game ends with the image of the ball arcing toward the basket. In that passage what is Mr. Gass implying by his use of only (13)? In what specific ways is the ball described as being different from the spectators? What general difference between them does Mr. Gass suggest? May the ball be said to embody an ideal? If so, how well does the crowd measure up to that ideal?

Point to learn

1. Good description appeals to the eyes and ears, to the nose and the taste buds and the fingertips. Seek to engage the senses of the reader in your writing.

2. The impression which a writer wishes to convey need not be stated, but it must control his selection of descriptive details.

Suggestions for writing

1. Write an impressionistic description of shoppers in a supermarket or of vagrants in a park or streetcorner.

2. Describe the crowd at a sports event or theater. Be clear in your mind what impression you want your reader to obtain, but do not tell him directly.

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  1. Anonymous on 12 April 2009, 19:14 said:

    AAAAGHH NOOO! …I’ve been prepping for the English Lit AP test… i does not want


  2. Snow White Queen on 12 April 2009, 20:55 said:

    Oh, AP testing…not looking forward to that next year…AP Chem and AP Calc, yay!

  3. Adam on 12 April 2009, 22:31 said:

    I’m really not very good at literary analysis, but I’ll take a stab at #14.

    What it seems like Gass is doing is sort of contrasting the serenity of the basketball with the tense people who are watching its arc. What I’m thinking is that the people, “running towards the same release”, really want the ball to go through the net; in other words, they really care about the outcome of the game. I would say, therefore, that the ball itself (and only the ball) embodies the ideal of playing the game for its own sake, not for the sake of winning.