In Defense of Descriptions in Novels

January 15, 2012

As a freshman at UCLA, I read Tess of the Durbervilles by Thomas Hardy,  a literary classic. That was a lot of years ago. I remember that I liked the novel then, not that I remembered very much about it.  Why did I return to it? Because I find more and more often that I have a difficult time finding writing that enchants me. So when I pulled out Tess of the Durbervilles, I found myself reading and rereading paragraphs, sometimes three and four times, for their brilliance, and wondered how I could possibly have enjoyed the novel properly when I was seventeen.

The other day I read a paragraph to my friend who is not a literary reader, and he was not enchanted. But then he is not a reader of any kind of fiction. He is a non-fiction reader. I explained to him that great description, regardless of the subject, brings to vivid life what we don’t focus on by ourselves. Take this humble scene that Hardy creates  as if there isn’t anything in the world more important. See through the eye of a great write.  A reaper is moving over a field of  corn and wheat. Read it slowly.

“The narrow lane of stubble encompassing the field grew wider with each circuit, and the standing corn was reduced to a smaller area as the morning wore on. Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated inwards as into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when, their covert shrinking to a more and more horrible narrowness, they were huddled together, friends and foes, till the last few yards of upright wheat fell also under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters.”