'Natation' Jackson

Parsing O'Hara

By Robert Saliba

I sent a quote of one sentence from a John O'Hara short story, "How Old, How Young," to a childhood friend of mine, who is a retired professor of literature.

Here is the sentence, which describes a young woman at poolside at the Lantenengo Country Club circa 1922:

"She picked up her bathing cap and pulled it on, tucking in wisps of her blonde hair, cocking her head as she did and unconsciously being extremely feminine and attractive."

Here is my friend's analysis:
Now the O'Hara sentence is excellent. One can read it over and over again and not get tired of it, for its structure is so perfect and the parts fit together so nicely.
"She," a feminine pronoun singular, controls two short compound verb/direct object units, very symmetrical with "picked up" and "pulled on" as matching active verbs and "bathing cap" as the object in both units, as represented by "it" in the second unit. This is followed by a compound sequence of three present participle phrases -- "tucking in," "cocking," and "being," each of which has a direct object (first two, again a series of two active verbs) or a predicate complement (final one).

All three participle phrases are adverbial, modifying "pulled on" but their sequence is varied by the propositional phrase "of her blonde hair" modifying "wisps," "as she did" modifying "cocking", and "unconsciously" modifying "being" which is in turn complemented by "feminine and attractive" -- another compound form modified by "extremely."

The whole sentence exhibits an extraordinarily symmetrical, but varied form. The sentence also moves gradually from simple concrete particular and active references to expansive, more abstract references, the transitions being marked by personal references back to the subject "she" (three "her's", "as she did") so that extremely feminine and attractive" falls right into place as expanding the particularized feminine imagery into a conceptual termination invoking femininity itself, though still tied closely to the particular "she" with which the sentence begins.

Everything in the sentence harmonizes, is held in place by adjacent forms, shows a varied progression, and terminates effectively. Nothing disrupts or disharmonizes with this combination.

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