Literature is more about experience than providing information. Experience can be created by descriptions. Descriptions are often skimmed or read too fast by pupils but contain important information about the mood of a scene.
Don’t forget that places, like characters, are artificially made. They are created by an artist on purpose. When describing a town or street, the author does not describe everything, otherwise the important stuff is out of focus. Details important for the story will be lost in the huge amount of information. Therefore, always be on the lookout when reading descriptions. Novelists tend to put tiny details in descriptions as a foreboding to later scenes. Descriptions also help you construct the scenery properly, it is our own imagination that fills the holes and enriches the descriptions, as long as the information given is consistent. Here is an example from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations:
We entered this haven through a wicket-gate, and were disgorged by an introductory passage into a melancholy little square that looked to me like a flat burying-ground. I thought it had the most dismal trees in it, and the most dismal sparrows, and the most dismal cats, and the most dismal houses (in number half a dozen or so), that I had ever seen. I thought the windows of the sets of chambers into which those houses were divided were in every stage of dilapidated blind and curtain, crippled flower-pot, cracked glass, dusty decay, and miserable makeshift; while To Let, To Let, To Let, glared at me from empty rooms, as if no new wretches ever came there, and the vengeance of the soul of Barnard were being slowly appeased by the gradual suicide of the present occupants and their unholy interment under the gravel. A frowzy mourning of soot and smoke attired this forlorn creation of Barnard[‘s Inn], and it had strewn ashes on its head, and was undergoing penance and humiliation as a mere dust-hole. Thus far my sense of sight; while dry rot and wet rot and all the silent rots that rot in neglected roof and cellar,—rot of rat and mouse and bug and coaching-stables near at hand besides—addressed themselves faintly to my sense of smell, and moaned, “Try Barnard’s Mixture.”
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Great Expectations is about Pip who has great expectations of coming to London. Barnard’s Inn is the first place he sees in the city, and he will stay there for quite some time. It is anything but a joyful place and the description of the Inn is a foreboding to what will happen to Pip later in the novel: it won’t be merry. Also, mind the use of the word ‘rot’. Dickens repeats the word to make the rot be everywhere, enforcing the idea that everything is rotten.
Not all information is given, for example, how many storeys does the building have, what is the colour of the bricks, are there bricks, or do we have sandstone? Consciously and unconsciously we fill-in information gaps, but the author provides us with the most important information: it is a sad, bleak place to be.
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