The first three descriptive paragraphs of Walter van Tilburg Clark's short story "The Portable Phonograph" are loaded with adjectives. What do most of these adjectives contribute to the establishment of setting and, in turn, mood?

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In his short story “The Portable Phonograph,” Walter van Tilburg Clark uses many adjectives in the first three paragraphs to help create a vivid setting and a memorable mood.  Among the adjectives Clark employs (as well as their various effects) are the following:

  • narrow, black cloud strips,” suggesting a sense of confinement and darkness.
  • “The air was still and cold, and in it settled the mute darkness and greater cold of night,” suggesting an absence of life and movement, as well as physical discomfort and an oppressive silence.
  • unpredictable nature,” suggesting nature as out of human control and therefore nature as a potential threat.
  • dead, matted grass and isolated weed stalks,” suggesting a lack of vitality, a sense of loneliness, and an absence of beauty.
  • narrow and deeply rutted remains of a road,” again suggesting limitations and also disrepair, neglect, and/or impotence (an inability to repair the road, however much one might wish to do so).
  • “crusts of shallow, brittle ice,” suggesting an unpleasant climate and also undependable weakness.
  • frozen rigid,” suggesting a doubly powerful absence of life and movement.
  • “the toothed impress of great tanks,” suggesting an almost animalistic destruction caused not simply by tanks alone but by especially large and powerful tanks.
  • weed-grown cavities,” suggesting lack of beauty and lack of human care.
  • gigantic bombs,” suggesting not just destructiveness but immense destructiveness.
  • tangled and multiple barbed wire,” suggesting chaos and lack of order.
  • small caves, now very quiet and empty,” suggesting an absence of life in unimpressive holes in the ground.
  • “the protracted howl and quick yap-yap of a prairie wolf,” suggesting the alternating moods and sounds of a dangerous animal.
  • “The creek was already silent under ice,” suggesting an absence of vitality and of comforting sounds.
  • expansive blizzards,” suggesting not just blizzards but huge, engulfing blizzards.
  • “the terrible cold,” suggesting not just cold but cold capable of killing and therefore worthy of fear.
  • And, finally, one of the most adjective-filled sentences in the opening paragraphs:

poorly aged peat, which gave off a petty warmth and much acrid smoke. But the precious remnants of wood, old fence posts and timbers from the long-deserted dugouts, had to be saved for the real cold,

suggesting the paltry, unpromising efforts of humans to survive in a landscape that seems to promise nothing but pain and/or death.

Just as Clark uses carefully chosen nouns in these paragraphs, so he uses carefully chosen adjectives.  The effects of these latter words are largely to intensify and emphasize our sense of discomfort and danger.  Thus, “smoke” is bad enough, but “much acrid smoke” is even worse.  Likewise, “blizzards” are bad, but “expansive blizzards” are even worse.  And so on.  The adjectives function to stress the depressing, demoralizing nature of the setting.

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