Twelve o’clock. Formality had been rubbed off, everybody was being their own age or under. Everybody being modern. Cigarettes burning like fireflies on a summer night. A Charleston contest with a great laundry show. Hey! Hey! Powder gone, but a lively prettiness taking its place. A wealthy woman in the foolish forties giggling on the shoulder of a twenty-year old. He is amusing himself by giving her what he calls a good sheiking as they dance around. They are bumping and she is panting a laugh at every bump. Business man near fifty dancing with a sweet young thing with a short dress and her knees roughed.
This excerpt is from a short story titled The Back Room by Zora Neale Hurston. It portrays a vivid party scene in New York’s Harlem district in the 1920s. The author’s word choices give the reader a sense of time and place and its intoxicated, gay and rowdy atmosphere: Twelve o’clock, modern, Cigarettes burning, fireflies, Powder gone, A Charleston contest, giggling, amusing, sheiking, bumping, panting, roughed. The syntax works together with the semantics that “Formality had been rubbed off” as most sentences are incomplete and deviating from their standard structures. The parallel phrases, such as “Everybody being…”, “Cigarettes burning…”, “prettiness taking its place.”, “A woman… giggling”, foreground the scene and bring it alive on the page. The tense shifts from the past in the beginning, “everybody was being their own age or under”, to the present towards the end, “He is amusing himself…”. Then it changes to the past again after the zoomed-in dance scene of the business man and the young girl and the zoomed-out group scene a few short paragraphs later: “Crowd grows noisier. Cocktails [ajplenty. Punch bowl always full. Good food, good liquor, pretty women, goodlooking men, and Lilya was in the center of it all with Bill…”. The variation of the tenses highlights the night scene and makes the setting real and urgent for the reader.
The rhythm of the excerpt mimics the fast-paced rag-time jazz to which Charleston was danced in the 20s. Short fragmented sentences vary with long ones creating a rich dynamic tempo for the reader. For example, one word sentences “Hey! Hey!” are followed by longer ones. Through the deliberate use of rhythm, syntax, and diction, the author creates a historical and social setting and background for the story. This helps the reader better understand the protagonist’s dilemma (a middle-aged society woman losing her beauty and youth in a fast changing and relentlessly biased upper class) and empathize with the questionable choices she has to make for survival.
To further illustrate the expressive effect of diction and syntax, I am attaching a brilliant writing student’s response to this discussion:
“The quick tempo created by the rhythm of the choppy sentences fits the jazz scene of 1920’s New York City. In this case, the syntax of the sentences contributes as much to the setting as do the semantics. Imagine, if you will, the same passage penned by Edgar Allan Poe:
Upon the somber stroke of midnight, far from the burning lights cast upon the city by the towers of Manhattan and huddled in the back parlor of a Harlem manor, I found myself immersed in festivity so opposite my melancholy ennui I could not help but abandon formality. Amidst the smoke of cigarettes and the cacophony of thumping rhythms, I joined in a round of the Charleston with a mad woman of leisure. Twice my age, she irreverently exposed her undergarments while kicking up her legs, an inebriated smile plastered on her grotesque face besmudged with fading makeup. “