On an evening not long before Christmas, say the Brothers Grimm, something curious happened to a shoemaker and his wife. In “Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm”, in a short, short story, The Elves, two pretty little naked men arrive to make Christmas joyous for a hardworking yet poor couple. The Grimms describe in one sentence a scene that tickles my fancy, and must surely tempt any reader to continue to the end:
When it was midnight, two pretty little naked men came, sat down by the shoemaker’s table, took all the work which was cut out before them and began to stitch, and sew, and hammer so skilfully and so quickly with their little fingers that the shoemaker could not turn away his eyes for astonishment.
A few months ago I became interested in the middle lines of a story, which are usually, but not always, the turning point. I posted on this blog 16 examples of great middle lines, then I went to New Zealand and lost my momentum with novels, not only because I had gone away and come back, but because the novels I read after blog post no. 16 didn’t have great middle lines, or because they were meaningless without adding a substantial whack of the story before and after.
Now, I’ve been reading some short stories about Christmas and have seen some pretty good turning points in their middles. Four of them are worth blogging about, so between today and Christmas Day I’ll share them with you. In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example, the middle lines of the middle chapter are meaningful. Perhaps even great. Here, Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Present, and from this page on he will never be the same:
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
The Drover’s Wife, a short story by Henry Lawson published in 1896, has a plot that unfolds over an afternoon and a night, marked by time phrases like “It is near sunset” and “It must be near one or two o’clock”. The story is an excellent example of Australian realism, well-told with dry, short sentences, few adjectives or adverbs but plenty of active verbs, all of this good for keeping the tension on, as you’ll see in this mid-point paragraph.
A bit of background: A drover has been gone from home for six months. His wife and children are alone in their bush hut. A snake has slid under the floor boards and a thunderstorm brews. The dog, Alligator, is wildly interested in the snake.
Near midnight. The children are all asleep and she sits there still, sewing and reading by turns. From time to time she glances round the floor and wall-plate, and whenever she hears a noise she reaches for the stick. The thunderstorm comes on, and the wind, rushing through the cracks in the slab wall, threatens to blow out her candle. She places it on a sheltered part of the dresser and fixes up a newspaper to protect it. At every flash of lightning the cracks between the slabs gleam like polished silver. The thunder rolls, and the rain comes down in torrents.
Alligator lies at full length on the floor, with his eyes turned towards the partition. She knows by this that the snake is there.
The Sleeper Awakes. It’s 1890s England when an insomniac falls into a sleep-like trance and awakes 203 years later to find he is the Master of the World. But while he had been sleeping, the masses had been oppressed, and they now find he has awoken and hope he will rescue them. One hundred and ten pages into this 220-page H.G. Wells novel, the sleeper, Graham, decides to reveal himself to the multitudes of people waiting:
“Will you let them see you, Sire? said Ostrog. “They are very anxious to see you.”
Graham hesitated, and then walked forward to where the broken verge of wall dropped sheer. He stood looking down, a lonely, tall, black figure against the sky.
Very slowly the swarming ruins became aware of him. And as they did so little bands of black-uniformed men appeared remotely, thrusting through the crowds towards the Council House. He saw little black heads become pink, looking at him, saw by that means a wave of recognition sweep across the space.
Yesterday I was teaching migrant English using an abridged version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Speckled Band. I enjoyed it so much, I sought out the original unabridged version and found some lines in the middle of the story that reveal Conan Doyle’s sharp wit and great sense of rhythm. It’s also clear at this point that Sherlock Holmes has the suspect worked out and now simply has to nail him. Here, Holmes’s associate, Dr Watson, records an exchange between Holmes and the suspect, who is screaming at him furiously:
“I know you, you scoundrel! I have heard of you before. You are Holmes, the meddler.”
My friend smiled.
“Holmes, the busybody!”
His smile broadened.
“Holmes, the Scotland-yard Jack-in-office!”
Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most entertaining,” said he. “When you go out, close the door, for there is a decided draught.”
At the centre of Great Expectations is a paragraph about Pip’s love for Estella, about his great expectations to win her heart. Though I’ve read this novel several times, I’d never thought of Dickens as romantic until today when I read this paragraph separately from the rest of the story:
Far into the night, Miss Havisham’s words, ‘Love her, love her, love her!’ sounded in my ears. I adapted them for my own repetition, and said to my pillow, ‘I love her, I love her, I love her!’ hundreds of times. Then, a burst of gratitude came upon me, that she should be destined for me, once the blacksmith’s boy. Then, I thought if she were, as I feared, by no means rapturously grateful for that destiny yet, when would she begin to be interested in me? When should I awaken the heart within her, that was mute and sleeping now?
A few days ago in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, I found an account of Sherlock Holmes performing one of his earliest deductions, at exactly the middle of Part I. You can read about it here.
Halfway through Part II of this short novel, Doyle wrote a short paragraph that was not about scientific deduction but rather about an eerie countdown, guaranteed to keep the reader turning pages. The character John Ferrier is given a deadline – 29 days – to hand over his daughter in marriage to one of the Mormon men. The next morning, at the breakfast table, his daughter points upwards:
In the centre of the ceiling was scrawled, with a burned stick apparently, the number 28. . . . That night he sat up with his gun and kept watch and ward. He saw and he heard nothing, and yet in the morning a great 27 had been painted upon the outside of his door.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is the first of his novels about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr Watson. I turned to the physical centre of the book to find its change of direction, and came across a long paragraph describing a Mormon caravan of wagons, horses, walkers, and toddlers, all making their way towards the West of the great North American Continent. The Mormons are a source of some major players in the story.
However, the novel has two parts, and I found at the centres of Part I and Part II the kind of mysterious statements that urge the reader to read on and discover how Sherlock solves the crime.
Halfway through Part I, a shonky detective, Lestrade, believes a murderer has written part of the name Rachel on the wall, in blood. But Sherlock’s logical reasoning produces a different theory on how the man was murdered:
“Poison,” said Sherlock Holmes curtly, and strode off. “One other thing, Lestrade,” he added, turning round at the door: “‘Rache,’ is the German for ‘revenge’; so don’t lose your time looking for Miss Rachel.”
Today I’ve found a book on my shelf which I’d forgotten about because it’s not memorable, despite its fame as a prizewinner. I’d bought it and read it because of an excellent piece I knew by the same author; it was about translating, a thing I love to do. So, I know he’s a great writer. I don’t think, however, that Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the reflections of a self-indulgent older man, deserved a big prize. Nevertheless, it has a middle as all writing does, and the narration on pages 75 and 76, at the rough centre, is well-written, the work of a close observer.
Here the narrator is lunching with his ex-wife, discussing an issue which has arisen about one of his ex-girlfriends, ‘The Fruitcake’:
There was a silence. We ate. Then Margaret tapped her knife against my plate.
“And if the presumably still-unmarried Miss Veronica Ford happened to walk into this café and sit down at our table, how would the long-divorced Mr Anthony Webster react?”
She always puts her finger on it, doesn’t she?
“I don’t think I’d be especially pleased to see her.”
Something in the formality of my tone caused Margaret to smile. “Intrigued? Start rolling up your sleeve and taking off your watch?”
I blushed. You haven’t seen a bald man in his sixties blush? Oh, it happens, just as it does to a hairy, spotty fifteen-year-old. And because it’s rarer, it sends the blusher tumbling back to that time when life felt like nothing more than one long sequence of embarrassments.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is the first adult novel I ever read. I remember the moment when I was thirteen and found it on the school library bookshelf, and I remember how grown-up I felt reading it.
In my $1 edition I bought at a flea market, I searched today for the pages at the centre of the novel, where I was surprised to find Jane and Rochester falling in love; this then is the turning point.
It’s a huge problem for her; he is anything but available. Jane feels now, at 19 years old, as though she has mastered life. But the second half of the story from here on will reveal that she stands not on a rock of love but on quicksand, while above her, hidden in the attic, is his mad wife:
“A sneer, however, whether covert or open, had now no longer that power over me it once possessed: as I sat between my cousins, I was surprised to find how easy I felt under the total neglect of the one and the semi-sarcastic attentions of the other – Eliza did not mortify, nor Georgiana ruffle me. The fact was, I had other things to think about; within the last few months feelings had been stirred in me so much more potent than any they could raise – pains and pleasures so much more acute and exquisite had been excited than any it was in their power to inflict or bestow – that their airs gave me no concern either for good or bad.”