Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

The Rhetoric of a Graham Greene Sentence: Content and Form

This post is slightly out of the ordinary for TCI, but reflection on rhetoric is always useful for people who use language and wish to use it effectively.

Last night I came across a sentence in Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man that I read several times because it was so pleasant. Here it is, together with the preceding sentence; in this scene, the lawyer Chavel attempts to save his life from the German firing squad by offering all of his possessions to any man who will take his place and be executed as his substitute.

“They were becoming impatient with him at last. Tolerance is a question of patience, and patience is a question of nerves, and their nerves were strained.”

There are two things, I think, that make this sentence so effective. The first has to do with content: it is an accurate description of how “tolerance”/”toleration” usually works in practice.

The second has to do with form. The sentence has no subordination (hypotaxis). Instead, the clauses come one after another in parataxis, with the inevitable motion from tolerance to its loss emphasized by polysyndeton (and…and)–a feature that reinforces the meaning of the sentence.

There are three clauses, forming a tricolon. This tricolon is a tricolon descendens, in which the successive clauses decrease in size from ten syllables, to nine, to five. The fact that the difference between the first two is so slight, while the third decreases by nearly a half, reminds us of how quickly tolerance can turn to its opposite as soon as the nerves are pricked. The clipped ending of the sentence expresses this perfectly.

The three clauses, moreover, are connected together by anadiplosis: the word that ends one clause begins the next (patience…patience…nerves…nerves), and this provides a common thread of connection from beginning to end.

But, while the first two clauses mirror one another exactly in terms of structure, thus leading the reader to expect that the third will do the same, Greene rings a change on that structure with variation in the third and brings the reader up short, and this too contributes to the sentence-ending effect noted above.

Thus form, when properly applied, gives strength and, as it were, flesh to content. In this instance, it turns what could have been an inelegant statement of a commonplace into a forceful and pointed expression of the changing social dynamics of a situation fraught with anxiety, an expression that mirrors those dynamics almost exactly.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.