The blue wing chair that had stood for years in the ghostly, immaculate guest bedroom, gazing through the windows curtained with dotted swiss toward the telephone wires and horse-chestnut trees and opposite houses, was here established importantly in front of the smutty little fireplace that supplied, in those first cold April days, their only heat.
“Pigeon Feathers,” by John Updike
Not the chair, but the blue wing chair. Not the bedroom, but the ghostly, immaculate guest bedroom.
One way (there are other ways, which will look at another time) to grow a sentence is by adding adjectives, adverbs, and modifying phrases. Updike likes this approach, and it wouldn’t be wrong to call it his style.
In this 55-word sentence, Updike uses 17 adjectives and one adverb. Those modifying words are embedded in modifying phrases and clauses. For instance, we have the modifying clause “that had stood for years in the ghostly, immaculate guest bedroom.” This syntactic strategy is called adjectival. Without these flourishes, the sentence would read:
The chair that had stood for years in the bedroom, gazing through the curtains toward the wires and trees and houses, was here established in front of the fireplace that supplied, in those days, their heat.
This stripped-down sentence works, of course. It’s grammatically correct and the reader understands that the chair, which used to be in one place, is now in another place.
It could have also been written like this:
The chair had stood for years in the bedroom.
It had gazed through the curtains toward the wires, trees, and houses.
It was now in front of the fireplace.
The fireplace supplied the heat.
Can you hear the difference? This latter style approach with short, simple sentences is called predicative, and it creates a blunt sound. As Walker Gibson wrote in “Tough, Sweet & Stuffy: An Essay on Modern Prose Styles,” the predicative style is tough and is most effective for characters who say only what they see or directly experience. The predicative style is very effective when creating tough-guy characters, men and women who act, but don’t think much about what they do.
With Updike’s adjectival style, he can include more imagery, and he has more opportunities for sound and rhythm, which means more music.
This is a mid-branching sentence with the subject—chair—separated by modifiers from the linking verb—was.
When monosyllabic adjectives are added before the noun, which is the traditional placement of adjectives in English, they slow the sentence down because they are stressed. For instance, the BLUE WING CHAIR. Or HORSE-CHESTnut TREES.
Even with polysyllabic adjectives, you create more rhythm: the GHOStly, iMMACulate, GUEST BEDroom.
Updike breaks this pattern and the traditional placement of adjectives by putting them after the noun with “the windows curtained with dotted swiss.” (Dotted swiss—I had to look it up—is a type of sheer fabric with dots that originated in Switzerland.) The placement of the adjectives after the noun speeds up the sentence.
There is also assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) with the long e: “wing” and “ghostly” and “immaculate”; and the short e sound with “guest” and “bedroom.” And also the long “o” in “those,” “cold,” and “only.”
The consonance (repetition of consonant sounds) and alliteration with the clustering of t” sounds: curtained, dotted, toward, telephone, chestnut, trees, opposite, importantly, smutty, little, first.
All the phonological cohesion, all that music, can be made with the adjectival style.
Give it a try!
Let me know how it goes.