5 Wonderfully Long Literary Sentences by Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald & Other Masters of the Run-On

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Despite its occasional use in spoken monologue, the Very Long Literary Sentence properly exists in the mind (hence “stream-of-consciousness”), since the most wordy of literary exhalations would exhaust the lungs’ capacity. Molly Bloom’s 36-page, two-sentence run-on soliloquy at the close of Joyce’s Ulysses takes place entirely in her thoughts. Faulkner’s longest sentence—smack in the middle of Absalom, Absalom! —unspools in Quentin Compson’s tortured, silent ruminations. According to a 1983 Guinness Book of Records, this monster once qualified as literature’s longest at 1,288 words, but that record has long been surpassed, in English at least, by Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which ends with a 33-page-long, 13,955 word sentence. Czech and Polish novelists have written book-length sentences since the sixties, and French writer Mathias Énard puts them all to shame with a one-sentence novel 517 pages long, though its status is “compromised by 23 chapter breaks that alleviate eye strain,” writes Ed Park in the New York Times. Like Faulkner’s glorious run-ons, Jacob Silverman describes Énard’s one-sentence Zone as transmuting “the horrific into something sublime.”

Are these literary stunts kin to Philippe Petit’s highwire challenges—undertaken for the thrill and just to show they can be done? Park sees the “The Very Long Sentence” in more philosophical terms, as “a futile hedge against separation, an unwillingness to part from loved ones, the world, life itself.” Perhaps this is why the very long sentence seems most expressive of life at its fullest and most expansive. Below, we bring you five long literary sentences culled from various sources on the subject. These are, of course, not the “5 longest,” nor the “5 best,” nor any other superlative. They are simply five fine examples of The Very Long Sentence in literature. Enjoy reading and re-reading them, and please leave your favorite Very Long Sentence in the comments.

At The New Yorker‘s “Book Club,” Jon Michaud points us toward this long sentence, from Samuel Beckett’s Watt. We find the title character, “an obsessively rational servant,” attempting to “see a pattern in how his master, Mr. Knott, rearranges the furniture.”

Thus it was not rare to find, on the Sunday, the tallboy on its feet by the fire, and the dressing table on its head by the bed, and the night-stool on its face by the door, and the washand-stand on its back by the window; and, on the Monday, the tallboy on its back by the bed, and the dressing table on its face by the door, and the night-stool on its back by the window and the washand-stand on its feet by the fire; and on the Tuesday…

Here, writes Michaud, the long sentence conveys “a desperate attempt to nail down all the possibilities in a given situation, to keep the world under control by enumerating it.”

The next example, from Poynter, achieves a very different effect. Instead of listing concrete objects, the sentence below from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby opens up into a series of abstract phrases.

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Chosen by The American Scholar editors as one of the “ten best sentences,” the passage, writes Roy Peter Clark, achieves quite a feat: “Long sentences don’t usually hold together under the weight of abstractions, but this one sets a clear path to the most important phrase, planted firmly at the end, ‘his capacity for wonder.’”

Jane Wong at Tin House’s blog “The Open Bar” quotes the hypnotic sentence below from Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Letter from Home.”

I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea, I washed the clothes, I dressed the children; the cat meowed, the dog barked, the horse neighed, the mouse squeaked, the fly buzzed, the goldfish living in a bowl stretched its jaws; the door banged shut, the stairs creaked, the fridge hummed, the curtains billowed up, the pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water grew folds, I shed my skin…

Kincaid’s sentences, Wong writes, “have the ability to simultaneously suspend and propel the reader. We trust her semi-colons and follow until we are surprised to find the period. We stand on that rock of a period—with water all around us, and ask: how did we get here?”

The blog Paperback Writer brings us the “puzzle” below from notorious long-sentence-writer Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill”:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the water of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the Mouth —- rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Blogger Rebecca quotes Woolf as a challenge to her readers to become better writers. “This sentence is not something to be feared,” she writes, “it is something to be embraced.”

Finally, from The Barnes & Noble Book Blog, we have the very Molly Bloom-like sentence below from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run:

But then they were married (she felt awful about being pregnant before but Harry had been talking about marriage for a while and anyway laughed when she told him in early February about missing her period and said Great she was terribly frightened and he said Great and lifted her put his arms around under her bottom and lifted her like you would a child he could be so wonderful when you didn’t expect it in a way it seemed important that you didn’t expect it there was so much nice in him she couldn’t explain to anybody she had been so frightened about being pregnant and he made her be proud) they were married after her missing her second period in March and she was still little clumsy dark-complected Janice Springer and her husband was a conceited lunk who wasn’t good for anything in the world Daddy said and the feeling of being alone would melt a little with a little drink.

Sentences like these, writes Barnes & Noble blogger Hanna McGrath, “demand something from the reader: patience.” That may be so, but they reward that patience with delight for those who love language too rich for the pinched limitations of workaday grammar and syntax.

Related Content:

Opening Sentences From Great Novels, Diagrammed: Lolita, 1984 & More

Lists of the Best Sentences — Opening, Closing, and Otherwise — in English-Language Novels

Cormac McCarthy’s Three Punctuation Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness



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by | Permalink | Comments (6) |

  • AUS

    You forgot to mention the god of long sentences – Lazslo Krashnahorkai

  • Michael Callanan

    And Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly Autumn of the Patriarch.

  • michel

    Cortazar, Saramago, Proust …

  • Rain,adustbowlstory

    They are making us hold our breath.

    Deliberately.

  • Martin Cohen

    Semicolons seem almost cheating to me. I deduct two points for each.

  • Susan

    I think Proust has some good ones: ” And I should have liked to be able to sit down and spend the whole day there, reading and listening to the bells, for it was so charming there and so quiet that, when an hour struck, you would have said not that it broke in upon the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of its superfluity, and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking exactitude of a person who has nothing else to do, had simply, in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops which had slowly and naturally accumulated in the hot sunlight, pressed, at a given moment, the distended surface of the silence.”

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