To Class or to War
The boys at Columbia went to class and the boys in Harlem went to war, a reality not suspended for a friendly Saturday pickup game. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
Patchett’s sentence traverses from one world to the other, from higher education to war, from white boys to black boys. A big, breathless sweep, across a wide landscape of lives and different ways of being in the world. The sentence has a feeling of balance, with the opening two independent clauses equally weighted.
That feeling of balance comes from Patchett’s use of parallelism: the similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses:
The (definite article) boys (subject) at Columbia (prepositional phrase) went (verb) to class (prepositional phrase)
The (definite article) boys (subject) in Harlem (prepositional phrase) went (verb) to war (prepositional phrase)
Parallelism makes ideal scaffolding to hold contrast or antithesis. When it’s used in this way, there is, at first, an interesting paradox: the sound and rhythm of parallelism create balance, and yet there is tension from the antithesis. Antithesis is the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or clauses. At the same time, there is balance or order when the antithetical pairing falls into an expected polarity. Our minds naturally order the world into polarities: benign/malevolent, finite/infinite, known/unknown, light/dark, night/day, joy/sorrow, on and on. When the antithesis works this way, it restores the overall tone of parallelism—that of balance and order—because of the expected contrast.
After the comma, Patchett further highlights the antithesis by the modifying clause: a reality not suspended for a friendly Saturday pickup game. The difference between the boys at Columbia and the boys in Harlem can’t be erased by a friendly Saturday pickup game of basketball.
This modifier has a double negative, which slowed me down and made me think. Patchett places “not” before suspended—the definition of suspended is to temporarily prevent from continuing or being in force. The idea of suspension is a negative—something is stopped. Even a friendly basketball game can’t stop the different realities with the inherent injustice. I think Patchett wanted me to slow down and experience how the two realities are stubbornly in place.
You could argue there’s one more antithesis here in the modifier. There’s the harsh reality of the two groups of boys and yet the game is a friendly one.
Try it! What do you have to gain?
Start with one base clause. Take a close look at that clause and determine the grammatical order. Now write another base clause with the same grammatical order of words.
Go back and add antithesis to these two base clauses. What can be contrasted?
Now add a modifying phrase that reinforces the contrast. Can you add something that contains more antithesis?
Give it a whirl!
What else do you see in this sentence?
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PS: Also, I have a new Stunning Sentence Creative Writing Journal, with 80 sentences from published authors with instructions about how to make them. In this journal, there are blank pages for you to write and play around with sentences.
Finally, my short story, “The Cathedral of Desire,” is now published by the fantastic journal, Your Impossible Voice.