Tuesday, February 24, 2009

UN- Purple Prose, A Classic Example

Last week, Lady Glamis (who I've decided is also incredibly nice, and whose books I'd like to read) posted a valuable lesson on Purple Prose. When we write, we should avoid adding flowery details that don't serve any function other than giving details. One way to fix the problem of purple prose is to cut the extraneous information during revision. But, there are great examples when details, LOTS of them, don't end up sounding purple. This happens when the author makes use of the details not only to create a scene, but also to help reveal character, culture, status, and other aspects of the story. In this post, I'm looking at a classic example to show how the best details serve multiple functions. Keep in mind that I usually get criticized for not having enough details, so the fact that this works for me means that there is something in the description that is holding my attention. This is a passage from one of my favorite books -- sorry, but I'm Old School-- Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy:

Although her dress, her coiffure, and all the preparations for the ball had cost Kitty great trouble and consideration, at this moment she walked into the ballroom in her elaborate tulle dress over a pink slip as easily and simply as though all the rosettes and lace, all the minute details of her attire had not cost her or her family a moment's attention, as though she had been born in that tulle dress and lace, with her hair done up high on her head, and a rose and two leaves on top of it…

It was one of Kitty's best days. Her dress was not uncomfortable anywhere; her lace berthe did not droop anywhere; her rosettes were not crushed nor torn off; her pink slippers with high, hollowed-out heels did not pinch, but gladdened her feet; and the thick rolls of fair chignon kept up on her head as if they were her own hair. All the three buttons buttoned up without tearing on the long glove that covered her hand without concealing its lines. The black velvet of her locket nestled with special softness round her neck. That velvet was delicious; at home, looking at her neck in the looking-glass, Kitty had felt that that velvet was speaking. About all the rest there might be a doubt, but the velvet was delicious. Kitty smiled here too, at the ball, when she glanced at it in the glass. Her bare shoulders and arms gave Kitty a sense of chill marble, a feeling she particularly liked. Her eyes sparkled, and her rosy lips could not keep from smiling from the consciousness of her own attractiveness.

What I find amazing about this section is that I get completely overloaded with details but the writing still works for me. We know basically everything there is to know about Kitty's outfit as she is entering a ball. But, we also know a lot more. We know that Kitty has put a lot of time into this very eleborate gown. We know that she has a certain charm -- she knows how to wear this gown. She knows how to carry herself. She's probably been to balls like this dozens of times before, always elaborately dressed and trying to look her best. But, this is not a typical day. Because, we know, though her glamour may have come at the cost of her comfort in previous balls, today, everything is perfect. Her rosettes are not crushed or torn. Her slippers do not pinch. Tonight is a charmed night, and Tolstoy is able to really give us a feeling for just how perfect this night is by describing everything from her feet up to her hair, not missing a thing, to ensure us that, indeed, everything is perfect in its totality. And, then he goes on to describe even more details, this time dipping into the realm of things that most people probably wouldn't even consider. The gloves do not conceal the lines of her hands. The velvet is speaking! Her bare arms not only look like marble, but like chill marble. This is a girl that really cares about her appearance and the impression that she is going to make. (My belt rarely matches my shoes, on the other hand.) This entrance to the ball is something very important to Kitty's life. And, through the descriptions, we get a sense of who Kitty is: a young woman, just breaking into the social world. Her mind is not distracted by thoughts of peace and war, money, death. No. All she cares about at this moment is making a grand entrance. And, in that, we understand who she is at this moment in her life, completely, before she is forced to grow up.

So, while details can be boring, they can also be used to great effect when they reveal more than what is obvious. Tomorrow, I'll break down a more contemporary passage that I like, in the hopes of showing even more ways that details can be made interesting.


  1. Ah, purple prose. What a conundrum for many of use who enjoy both straight-forward and flowery writing.

    Might I compliment you on using Tolstoy! How absolutely wonderful.

    I agree with you on the point that using description to reveal other elements of the plot and characters is effective. However, if it goes on for too long, I think the reader can get lost and bored. It requires a lot of concentration and effort to dig through all the description if you're not used to doing that. I'm an English major and a lover of classical literature, so reading works like The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald relies on beautiful descriptions and colors to convey his meaning and theme, is second nature to me and doesn't require too much effort.

    I don't write classical literary fiction, however, and I have to remember that my readers will get annoyed more than anything if I use too much description. It must all be carefully chosen and tight. TIGHT. I love that word. I think it's the key to using "purple prose" effectively.

    As for what I learned on my trip about my writing... I think I'll do a post on it soon. It was an eye-opener. :)

  2. I haven't read Anna Karenina, but I enjoyed The Kreutzer (sp?) Sonata.

  3. I agree w/ LG, the key is to effective use purple prose, just as it has been done in your example.

    That said, I end up scanning through if it's more than say 10 sentences long on describing a dress :) I'm horrible, I know!

  4. great post! and great selection. it would be interesting to compare your selection to the 'mowing scene' in Anna (my favorite part!). That part feels more stripped down and you can see the roots of the Hemingway-Carver-McCarthy school of writing. my observation is that Tolstoy manages to find appropriate details and level of detail depending on the character he is 'inhabiting' or focused on. Levin is always described more simply and in more pared down language where descriptions of Anna and Kitty are more voluptuous and sometimes 'purple.' But it always feels like it belongs to the same book! brilliant!

  5. The context can play a huge role in determining the relevance of the Purple Prose. For your example, a lady painstakingly prepared to make an entrance to a grand ball, it heightens the effect.

    Such detail could also be equally telling if the character was a bum preparing to sit on the corner and beg enough change for a bottle of bourbon (just swap the coiffure for matted beard, rosettes for a belt of used butcher’s twine, and everything else with loose-fitting layers of vomit-stained clothing).

    Where it would not be suitable is in describing the armor of a knight as he meets his foe in battle. That’s where we just want action.

    My tendency with purple prose is to provide too much back story on ancillary characters, more than elaborate descriptions. That can be just as distracting.

    Here’s another example, to try and put it in a smooth nutshell:

    A) I extend to you an informal greeting of welcome.

    B) Hi.

    If you were meeting royalty in the eighteenth century, perhaps A would suffice. If you just bumped into an acquaintance at McDonald’s, please go with B. But do feel free to supersize it to Hello ;-)

  6. A contemporary writer who does this well is A.S. Byatt, especially when she writes about food and shows her characters eating. Every detail tells us about the character, adds to overall setting and mood, and is rich in symbology. She also does this with clothing, but there her writing lacks the sensuality of her descriptions of food.

    Since the heyday of Henry James, maybe, clothing has possibly lost a lot of its symbolic meaning to readers. Americans, at least, are likely less attuned to such subtle details. And by "Americans" I mean me. When I read Austen, for example, I am aware that there is more going on with her visual cues than I'm aware of. Proust, at least, tells you outright who's got the most expensive hat and gloves in the room.

  7. Lady Glamis, You're absolutely right about the concentration. Some books definitely require more effort on the reader than others, not to say one type of book is better than another. Sometimes I wish I had majored in English. Instead, I picked the wonderful world of biochemistry.

    Justus, I've heard that Kreutzer Sonata and Hadji Murad were two of Tolstoy's best works. I haven't read either of them, but I look forward to it. I'm so impressed with his long works, and it's great to think that his short works are even better.

    Crimogenic, I hear you! And, I know Tolstoy isn't for everybody either. But, hopefully people can appreciate the greats even if they don't personally like them.

    edithroad, Thank you. I should mention that you inspired this post too. Tolstoy is definitely stripped down in places. What I like about him is that he knews when to hold back and when to give more.

    Rick, good examples. If I ever see you in a McDonald's I'm going to use A, though. If I can remember it all.

    Scott, a lot of good points. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm trying to read more contemporaries, but I only ended up getting the most popular ones. I didn't mention the symbolism, but you're right. I love Japanese literature, and a lot of that stuff is very symbolic and over my head. And, Proust is great. I only discovered him a few months ago, but he has changed my writing dramatically.

  8. I have nothing like the command of detail you're talking about in this post; my writing nowadays is primarily informed by Hemingway's conciseness. Who am I kidding? I simply don't have the craft to build up layers of telling detail in a narrative. Character and dialog are my strong suits; descriptive language comes hard. But I admire writers who can lend us their eye for detail.

    Of Byatt's books I might first recommend "Possession," which won the Booker Prize. On the surface it's a romance, but not far below that surface it's about identity and literary theory.

    I'm pretty wary of reading new authors, sadly enough. There's a sort of fractured layering of structure going on in modern narrative (especially in the work of English writers) that I'm not entirely sure works.

  9. I assumed that the phrase of purple prose is a good introduction for flowery writing. But it can be some tricky if you goes with straight-forward writing. Most definite thing is to keep the reader's attention. If the flowery writing, well-descriptive might suit your readers, it just pretty ok. That's easy, huh ?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.