The Sound at the End: Narrative and Music

Each night before bed, Cathy turns on the dishwasher and sets the security alarm. I listen to the  whir of water, the beeps of the alarm. As we drift off to sleep, there’s the hum of traffic from the nearby highway, or the sound of our cat, Stella, jumping onto the bed. At the end of our days, I pay attention to sounds. The dishwasher is a very polite dishwasher, its whir and hum soothing. The security alarm is more brash. Its steady beeps get more frantic as it comes closer and closer to arming itself. The sound of Stella’s jump comes in sudden fashion but with a noise of comfort. Soon her purring becomes a gentle rhythm.

I’m thinking about sounds today, specifically the music language makes and how we might think about various strategies for the ends of our narratives from an aural perspective.

Consider, for instance, the last sentence from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” Syntactically, the sentence runs the way of the waterway being described. The sentence is fluid (pun only partially intended). The compound nature of the sentence creates a soft, soothing sound. The alliteration of b’s—“barred by a black bank of clouds”—slows the sentence a tad, and the two words, each stressed—“black, bank”—slows it even further, creating something that our ears pick up, and we label it “serene.” If you mark the stressed syllables of the rest of the sentence, thereby distinguishing the prose rhythm, you’ll notice how the sentence seems to run a bit before slowing with “flowed somber under an overcast sky.” Just listen to the stresses in that part of the sentence—flow, som-, un-, o-, cast, sky. Hear the forward motion being slightly reined in to prepare the way for the pause, or the caesura, that occurs with the dash, that breath before the sentence turns to “the heart of an immense darkness.” The sentence has a surprise in content—that turn toward from tranquility to darkness—and the syntax and the sound reinforce that turn.

Or, to look at a different strategy, consider the last sentence of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O”: “And if Stella-Rondo should come to me this minute, on bended knees, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whittaker, I’d simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen.” The sentence literally huffs. From its initial, word—“And,” as in “And another thing”—the breath comes out in a lengthy exhale, as if the speaker has carried these words inside her and she can keep them in no longer. Italicizing the word, “attempt,” makes a sound like a finger tapping on something hard, and from that stress, the sentence rushes on to its vitriolic end.

What I’m saying here is that each sentence in a narrative creates a particular sound. Nowhere is this more important than at the end. If we pay attention to our syntax, structure, and word choice, we can create the sound that corresponds to the atmosphere we want to leave with the reader, and we can also underscore the emotional states of the main characters. Everything should be organic in a good narrative—the sound of the language, no less so. We make a music for our characters, their dramatic situations, and journeys through them. Our language creates a soundtrack for the stories we have to tell.

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