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The “diction” of any work of literature – that is, the actual choices of specific words – is (arguably) precisely the element that makes any work succeed or fail. Certainly it is possible to make this claim about Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill.” Notable aspects of the diction of this story include the following:
- Vivid imagery, as in the following phrasing from the opening sentence: “the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine . . . .”
- Direct appeal to the reader, as in the following phrasing:
The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip . . . .
Such phrasing makes us feel as if we are there in the park with Miss Brill. The effect would be different (more distanced, more objective) even if Mansfield had simply written “when one opens one’s mouth,” etc.
- Subjective description, as when Miss Brill touches her fur and the narrator writes, “Dear little thing!” These words express Miss Brill’s own attitude toward her fur but are more immediate and direct even than if the narrator had written, “Miss Brill thought to herself: dear little thing!” The sentence as Mansfield phrases takes us right insight Miss Brill’s mind.
- Clear and efficient phrasing, as in the following sentence:
She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes.
Nothing about this sentence is unclear. It is easy to read and easy to understand, and the use of listing or cataloguing (“taken,” “shaken,” “given,” “rubbed”) allows Mansfield to communicate a great deal of information in very few words. This method of listing also places maximum emphasis on each of the verbs.
- Qualification, as in the phrasing “something light and sad–no, not sad, exactly–something gentle,” where the hesitation and clarification suggest the thoughtfulness of Miss Brill and the narrator’s own interest in precision and correctness.
- Beginning sentences with conjunctions, as in the sentence “And the band sounded louder and gayer.” Such sentences add to the flow of the narration and suggest that the narrator is reporting events almost in a “stream-of-consciousness” kind of style.
- Use of contractions, as in the phrases describing the playing of the band: “ it didn't care how it played if there weren't any strangers present” (emphasis added). Here the use of contractions suggests an informal, relaxed, unpretentious tone. The narrator does not seem pompous, and so the story seems more appealing that it would if it were written in a stiffer, more self-important style.
- Use of exclamation marks, as in the statement “Now there came a little ‘flutey’ bit–very pretty!–a little chain of bright drops.” Here again the tone is informal and unpretentious and helps characterize Miss Brill as a person capable of feeling emotion and taking joy in her perceptions.
Note how many of the traits of diction just discussed contribute to an informal, relaxed, accessible, and inviting tone.
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