Artifacts VII : The Dash

A paper written for English 344, turned into one Dr. Thrailkill on November 13, 2006, the day after my 21st birthday. The essay is about punctuation, the Dash specifically, and how the dash was used in works of 19th century literature to explore the psychological contours of characters.

The dash, formed in printing by two hyphens lacking separation, is a piece of punctuation, “stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses” (Strunk and White, 9). Traditionally a dash indicated an abrupt change of thought, informal in nature, and often acted as a parenthetical device to provide emphasis. It is this element of punctuation, the dash – myriad in function and application that so often appeared within the works of literary realists and naturalists. The dash is utilized to highlight mental infirmities, to accurately represent disjointed or faltering thought and speech, and to reveal the emotional condition of characters.

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw features a staggering number of dashes that, as the story wends its way through intricate ambiguities and veiled horrors, serve to underline and accentuate the mental instability of the young governess. Acting not only as a device to enhance the clipped and hasty atmosphere, James’s use of the dash creates a scene of miscommunication, faulty judgment, and over zealous suspicion. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short work The Yellow Wallpaper echoes James’s method of using the dash as a tool to unveil mental instability, in Gilman’s case the latent insanity of John’s wife. Gilman’s work however, makes use of the dash to retaliate against a society that stifled its women under a shroud of domesticity. The dashes of Gilman’s story often elicit a sarcastic or rebellious tone; it is from these small statements that the main character communicates her dissatisfaction and beliefs without fear of reprisal from her caretakers.

The appearance of the dash in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is often representative of a strained or agitated mental state. The agitation is resultant of intense combat and the attendant mortal danger of armed conflict. The dashes of Crane’s novel create abrupt and often discontinuous thought and conversation imitating, realistically, the curtailed ability to think and speak on a battle field. The dashes of Crane’s work also capture and emphasize the emotions of its characters through the repetition of speech. Henry’s repeated entreaties to Jim, the musings of untested soldiers, and several other instances make use of repetition to depict emotionally charged scenes.

The Turn of the Screw employs the dash to weave a story rich with ambiguity and to cultivate an atmosphere of suspicion and dread. When speaking together the governess and Mrs. Grose perpetually finish the other’s sentences. “Did she see anything in the boy—” begins the governess whose sentence is finished “That wasn’t right? She never told me” by Mrs. Grose (James, 12). The dash denotes the governess’s fear of immorality or impropriety. She is seeking to discover if Miles is capable of misbehavior but avoids stepping outside her bounds by leaving the question incomplete. The fact that Mrs. Grose has to finish the statement also contributes to the ambiguous nature of the story. The reader is not truly witness to the governess’s question because her thought has been completed by another individual. These lines represent the ideas of not one, but two different people. The young governess herself gets interrupted when asking Miles “and these things came round—” who completes her sentence “To the masters? Oh yes!” (James 86). Again the interruption stands in the way of communication. The governess has not yet expressed herself fully meaning that Miles must speak with a measure of supposition to complete her thought.

The propensity to finish each other’s sentences gives insight into the mental insecurities of the governess. Assuring the governess that miles “couldn’t prevent— (James, 35)” her from learning of an inappropriate relationship between he and Quint, Mrs. Grose is cut off derisively. “Your learning the truth? I daresay! (James, 36),” interrupts the governess. Although the young woman has only recently arrived and knows little of the history of the children and manor she quickly scoffs at Miles’ innocence. The interruption of Mrs. Gross, represented by the dash, and the willingness of the governess to readily believe suppositions emphasizes her mental instability. In quickly interrupting Mrs. Grose the governess has arrived at a conclusion in a hurried manner, relying on scanty evidence to cast Miles into doubt. The musings of the governess also contain dashes that give insight into her character. She had “plunged afresh into Flora’s special society and there become aware – it was almost a luxury! – that she could put her little conscious hand straight upon the spot that ached” (James, 33). This exclamation, set off by dashes, within the middle of a thought illustrates the instability of the governess. Describing Flora as a very discerning individual who uses her ability in a devious way, the governess reverts within the dashes to praising her ‘society’ with Flora. Here the dashes indicate a single thought oscillating between praise and disapproval. This also adds to the ambiguous nature of the novel by clouding the true thoughts of the Governess. By going back and forth with her sentiments it is difficult to establish a concrete idea of the governess’s true motivation and character.

Reminiscent of Henry James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her short story The Yellow Wallpaper makes use of the dash as a means to emphasize mental breakdown. The dash is also employed in Gilman’s story to criticize the treatments prescribed to the main character by her husband – in effect critiquing the contemporary methods of psychological treatment during the author’s time. On arriving at the mansion the main character claims that, “I am afraid, but I don’t care – there is something strange about the house – I can feel it” (Short stories, 75). The dashes both foreshadow further investigation of the house and that the woman is poised to deteriorate mentally. A connection has been made between the woman and the mansion; she can sense the nature of the house. With curiosity aroused the main character describes the nursery in which she and her husband stay. In this nursery is wall paper possessing flamboyant patterns that “when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Short Stories, 76). The elaboration of the patterns following the dash is creating a personality or being from wallpaper, the protagonist has begun to assign the wallpaper qualities that give it far more complex presence than paper. The active qualities with which the paper is described, plunging and destroying, begin to give life to the paper. This in turn demonstrates that the woman’s mental condition is worsening. Her mental breakdown is vividly portrayed by delivering her wild stories in a matter of fact tone. The supernatural details of the nursery are explained as if they were completely real highlights how deranged the woman has become.

Written in part as a rebuttal to the rest cure and the idea of domesticity, Gilman’s story utilizes dashes to express the main character’s resistance to the treatment her husband has prescribed. For her treatment the main character “takes phosphates or phosphates – whichever it is…and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again” (Short Stories, 74). The sarcastic tone of this statement, intensified by the flippant attitude generated by the insertion of a dash, exemplifies the unhappiness of the main character with her treatment. It is as if she neither knows nor cares what treatment is being administered; she has complete disinterest. She is undergoing the treatment to satisfy her husband, not because she thinks the methods are helping. Saying that, “I take great pains to control myself – before him at least, and that makes me very tired” (Short Stories, 75), the woman makes clear that she is merely going through the motions. The dash highlights the contrast between the behavior she presents to her husband and those around her and the true nature of her attitudes. At first she claims to take great pains when monitoring her behavior and subscribing to her treatment but that is quickly modified after the dash to show that she only adheres to her husband’s dictation when he is around. The dash serves as a device by which her statement is made conditional.

Similar to both Henry James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane in his short novel The Red Badge of Courage relies on dashes to tailor the presentation of his characters’ mental processes and to take measure of their emotional status. The dashes in Crane’s novel often separate short staccato series of words emblematic of battlefield commands and yells. The captain yells orders to his men, “Reserve your fire boys – don’t shoot till I tell you – save your fire – wait till they get close up – don’t be damned fools” (Crane, 24). Here the dashes group the words into small bursts, representative of military orders. The repetition coupled with the dash also serves to emphasize the captain’s desires; it makes clear through concise and repetitious language, what the men need to do. The emotional condition of individuals within Crane’s book is made clear by the use of the dash. When meeting up with Jim, Henry poignantly assures him that, “Yes – yes – I tell yeh – I’ll take care of yeh Jim” (Crane, 41). As Henry struggles to deal with his wounded companion the dashes can be seen almost as gasps for air. Henry’s words come in between gulping for breath and are staggered, faltering. The anguish prevalent in Henry’s character at this moment is rendered easily recognizable by the construction of the sentence. The dash also symbolizes the abrupt termination of thought within the novel. In the midst of battle Henry realizes, “We’ve on’y got t’ go across that lot. An’ then—the remainder of his idea disappeared in a blue haze of curses” (Crane, 80). In the midst of a seething battle a thought could be lost very easily. The dash, which illustrates the disconnection of Henry from his thought process, quickly ends the thought and effects its replacement with a litany of curses.

Used for a variety of purposes the dash is essentially a tool of emphasis. While dashes may connect, interrupt, indicate a change, create uncertainty, and other things, it is within all these capacities that a dash calls attention to a part of a story or novel. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used dashes to criticize elements of her society and generate pity for a woman sinking deeper and deeper into insanity. Henry James used dashes to weave an intricate portrait of confusion and ambiguity and imbue the entire work with a feeling of dread. Stephen Crane used the dash to create a life like representation of battlefield frenzy and to capture the emotions of soldiers fighting on that battlefield. Many authors have utilized the dash as a central piece of punctuation. Its very utility, its appeal, comes from its ability to serve such a broad array of functions.

paper. This in turn demonstrates that the woman’s mental condition is worsening. Her mental breakdown is vividly portrayed by delivering her wild stories in a matter of fact tone. The supernatural details of the nursery are explained as if they were completely real highlights how deranged the woman has become.

Written in part as a rebuttal to the rest cure and the idea of domesticity, Gilman’s story utilizes dashes to express the main character’s resistance to the treatment her husband has prescribed. For her treatment the main character “takes phosphates or phosphates – whichever it is…and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again” (Short Stories, 74). The sarcastic tone of this statement, intensified by the flippant attitude generated by the insertion of a dash, exemplifies the unhappiness of the main character with her treatment. It is as if she neither knows nor cares what treatment is being administered; she has complete disinterest. She is undergoing the treatment to satisfy her husband, not because she thinks the methods are helping. Saying that, “I take great pains to control myself – before him at least, and that makes me very tired” (Short Stories, 75), the woman makes clear that she is merely going through the motions. The dash highlights the contrast between the behavior she presents to her husband and those around her and the true nature of her attitudes. At first she claims to take great pains when monitoring her behavior and subscribing to her treatment but that is quickly modified after the dash to show that she only adheres to her husband’s dictation when he is around. The dash serves as a device by which her statement is made conditional.

Similar to both Henry James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane in his short novel The Red Badge of Courage relies on dashes to tailor the presentation of his characters’ mental processes and to take measure of their emotional status. The dashes in Crane’s novel often separate short staccato series of words emblematic of battlefield commands and yells. The captain yells orders to his men, “Reserve your fire boys – don’t shoot till I tell you – save your fire – wait till they get close up – don’t be damned fools” (Crane, 24). Here the dashes group the words into small bursts, representative of military orders. The repetition coupled with the dash also serves to emphasize the captain’s desires; it makes clear through concise and repetitious language, what the men need to do. The emotional condition of individuals within Crane’s book is made clear by the use of the dash. When meeting up with Jim, Henry poignantly assures him that, “Yes – yes – I tell yeh – I’ll take care of yeh Jim” (Crane, 41). As Henry struggles to deal with his wounded companion the dashes can be seen almost as gasps for air. Henry’s words come in between gulping for breath and are staggered, faltering. The anguish prevalent in Henry’s character at this moment is rendered easily recognizable by the construction of the sentence. The dash also symbolizes the abrupt termination of thought within the novel. In the midst of battle Henry realizes, “We’ve on’y got t’ go across that lot. An’ then—the remainder of his idea disappeared in a blue haze of curses” (Crane, 80). In the midst of a seething battle a thought could be lost very easily. The dash, which illustrates the disconnection of Henry from his thought process, quickly ends the thought and effects its replacement with a litany of curses.

Used for a variety of purposes the dash is essentially a tool of emphasis. While dashes may connect, interrupt, indicate a change, create uncertainty, and other things, it is within all these capacities that a dash calls attention to a part of a story or novel. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used dashes to criticize elements of her society and generate pity for a woman sinking deeper and deeper into insanity. Henry James used dashes to weave an intricate portrait of confusion and ambiguity and imbue the entire work with a feeling of dread. Stephen Crane used the dash to create a life like representation of battlefield frenzy and to capture the emotions of soldiers fighting on that battlefield. Many authors have utilized the dash as a central piece of punctuation. Its very utility, its appeal, comes from its ability to serve such a broad array of functions.

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