The best-written paragraph in English was written by a shortsighted Irishman

James Joyce in 1915

James Joyce, shortsighted man, in 1915, the year after Dubliners was published

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer.

I took my early jobs because they would make me write a lot, on the principle that quantity might make me able to write as well as George Orwell and I might be able to write in any style on demand.

George Orwell was not a great novelist, but he was a brilliant communicator of ideas.

I would like to have thought I could write a book as well as George Eliot but, like several others, once I read Middlemarch, I knew this was not even a  distant possibility.

As for style, when I was young, I might even have hoped that one day I could write something as perfect as the final paragraph of The Dead, the last story in James Joyce’s book Dubliners. It is arguably the most perfectly-written paragraph in English literature… written, as it happens, by an Irishman.

The final paragraph always reminds me of Christmas. These are the final three paragraphs of The Dead:


The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


So it goes.

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Filed under Books, Literature, Writing

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