Ray Bradbury and Nathaniel Hawthorne excel as writers, not the least for their imagination and insight. But these particular authors also excel at the art of making word puddles.
I use the term “word puddles” in my English classes to describe a torrent of words which don’t necessarily have depth when sounded individually, but sloshed about in the same sentence they collect into an atmospheric unity, condensing into a story more fluid and more full of meaning. For example, I just wrote a sentence about “word puddles” in which I deliberately expressed myself in water-y words: “torrent”, “depth”, “sounded”, “sloshed”, “atmospheric”, “condensing” and “fluid”. Words evocative of the same central image endow each other with increasing import. For example, the word “full” in the previous sentence now can connote a cup of liquid, but only because of the proliferation of other water words. I’ve found that “puddle” is more fitting than something like “stack” or “pile” to emphasize this coherence of vocabulary; in even the smallest body of water, individual drops disappear into each other. Of course, the “water” sentence above is too didactic and too forced. It is a journeyman sentence. Bradbury and Hawthorne are the masters.
Bradbury’s Prose Puddles
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about a society in which books have been slowly abandoned by cultural habit, and now are systematically burnt so they don’t spark conversation and ensuing disagreements. In Bradbury’s entirely fictional world, the general populace is terrified of offending anyone, absolutely terrified. To dull their brains and inure themselves to any kind of thinking at all (for thinking is potentially offensive), they watch inane television shows on giant flickering screens. It’s just fiction, of course. No one in an enlightened society would actually do anything like that.
Here is a passage describing the protagonist Montag, himself at first a burner of books, as he enjoys his task of destruction.
…his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies.
This is a pretty obvious conflagration (can’t call this one a puddle). Bradbury easily establishes the fire imagery with “flame” “igniter” “fire” “burned” “fireflies”, and the colors orange, red, yellow, and black. Even “flicked” now feels like “flickered.”
Contrast that passage with the description of Montag meeting Clarisse, the character who first opens his eyes to the real world, and an appealing contrast to the world of fire.
“He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water… Her face [had] a soft and constant light about it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity, but – what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle.”
Clarisse’s face is also associated with a kind of light, but of the kind that glances unassumingly off the surface of a … well, a puddle of water. There is an embrace mixed into the light here, too: “soft”, “constant”, “comfortable”, “gently”.
This style benefits the writer and reader of fiction. The intent to splash in as big a puddle as possible leads us easily from the literal vocabulary to the metaphors beyond it. We quickly associate the visible reflection of the fire in Montag’s eyes with the invisible consuming desire in Montag’s “thought”. And since the flame in Montag’s eyes acquired meaning, the drops of bright water in Clarisse’s eyes also mean more, and the metaphor is easy to notice. She sees him truly, and sees he isn’t the burner of worlds he claims to be. He is a man of reflection, of calm, and of insight.
Hawthorne’s Flowering Hope
Truly enlightened societies don’t burn thought-provoking books, of course. That would be archaic. Much better to just brand a hashtag on the title page of the offending material, and ignite the hysteria that reduces true enlightenment to ash. But Hester Prynne was branded, too, and she stood at her stake till the spontaneous flares of unreason died out. Stake your own claim to the books that have stood boldly on the pyres of time. One of these, in the literature of the United States, is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Consider this extended excerpt from the opening passage.
A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes. …the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World…. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
Hawthorne depicts a society with an immovable structure, built on a corroding and corrosive kind of age, imposing burdens and sadness on participating citizens. This puddle was formed by tears: sad, grey, wooden, edifice, heavily, timbered, oak, studded, iron, spikes, stains, age, darker, beetle-browed, gloomy, rust, ponderous, iron-work, oaken (again), antique, ugly, edifice (again), street, overgrown, unsightly, civilised, society, prison, prisoner, condemned, criminal. Notice, as in the Bradbury excerpt, that some of these words drop into the puddle only by association; “street”, for example, would hardly be anything but neutral if Hawthorne weren’t so relentlessly hammering home the notion of the hard man made impositions on nature. The gloom and gravity of this community are associated, as the passages I’ve excised elaborate on, the admixture of church and state governance. This admixture is admirably represented by the “steeple-crowned hats” worn both literally and metaphorically by the citizens gathered at the prison. And on a second read, even the gathered throng seem imprisoned by their “beards” and “hoods”. The fact that some of them are bare-headed now has greater meaning as well, since it can only mean the hope for freedom. That hope is indeed the meaning of the last few sentences of the passage.
But this inexorably long page of text is inexorable and long for a reason. Why couldn’t Hawthorne just say that a sad crowd, burdened by awareness of sin and death, was standing in front of a prison? Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Hawthorne understands writing better than we do. Safe assumption. Let’s say he knows we’ll experience tedium unless we take the time to notice what’s happening. And let’s say we’re not planning to be like the sad throng. This passage, if we read it, if we notice the words, has the potential to move away from the thing Hawthorne condemns. He wants us to feel the tedium, feel the burden, confront the sadness. Because if we allow ourselves to feel that, and if we have the courage to keep reading, we’ll look for something else to latch onto.
Latch is definitely the wrong word there, and you’ll know it is if you’ve been splashing. What we’ll be looking for is a sense of freedom, a sense of hope, and the sense of the beautiful. Hawthorne gives us that when he suddenly turns his torrent of words in the last few sentences. Outside the prison door is a rose-bush, and on that rose-bush grow the following words: wild, rose-bush, June, delicate, gems, imagined, fragrance, fragile, beauty, deep, heart, Nature, pity, kind. These words exist in a fallen world, where the vegetation of nature is as unsightly as the prison, but right at the end, there is the bright precious moment of hope. The weight is balanced by the weightlessness of fragrance and fragility, pity and kindness.
These two authors, in addition to illustrating the point of the word puddles, have perhaps provided us with one connected thought. Bradbury speaks of the human desire to destroy, and Hawthorne speaks of one possible solution: imprison every destroyer. But Hawthorne also reaches out for an intangible and inarticulate hope for mercy, and Bradbury’s book suggests a path every prisoner enchained by sin can begin to follow. If we’ve been splashing through these puddles we’re already following that path. In the words of Douglass, “Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”