Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

How leisurely and urbane the tone of the language is in the opening paragraph of “A Distant Episode.” Long, slowly measured sentences, with modifiers practically banging into one another, abound:Now facing the flaming sky in the west, and now facing the sharp mountains, the car followed the dusty trail down the canyons into air that began to smell of other things besides the endless ozone of the heights: orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit. He closed his eyes happily and lived for an instant in a purely olfactory world.

Sun-baked excrement and all, reflected in the opening paragraph is the anticipation of romance or adventure, certainly not a sense of imminent danger. The opening paragraph sets the ironic tone of “A Distant Episode,” and the unrelenting, crushing weight of it is felt fully by the time the reader gets to the end of the story.

There is a sharp contrast to this leisurely rhythm when, near the end of the story, the Professor begins to feel “the slow sharpening of his consciousness”; the vital action patterns of the sentences give thrust to his sudden, urgent need to find release from his condition: “He felt . . . he attacked . . . he climbed . . . he began to gallop.” When nobody pays attention to him except the French soldier “who takes a potshot at him for good luck,” one sees the fading image of what was once a civilized man, a cavorting figure growing smaller and smaller, framed in a funereal “great silence out there beyond the gate.”