In these sporadic sentence diagramming posts, I diagram sentences to deepen their meaning, to become a better writer, or for my own amusement.
Patterns are clues. They tell us what to expect next. They feel mathematical and safe and empowering. Even preschoolers know red always precedes orange, which always precedes yellow. Is there any more pleasing color scheme than ROYGBIV?
The really interesting patterns, though, are the ones that don’t follow through. We think we know what to expect, but then that pattern doesn’t follow through. It feels coated with meaning.
Think about songs. We have the standard verb-chorus-verb-chorus repetition, until the emotional heart of the song, the bridge. For example, think about that drum break in Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight,” which shifts from the rather repetitive early part of the song to an entirely different key?
Patterns were on my mind when I diagrammed “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you,” from Jane Eyre.
In the previous post, I looked at Jane’s proclamation of personhood, and how the diagram suggested that she did not even believe herself when she insisted that she was just as much a person, with a soul and heart, as Rochester. Rochester, we know, doesn’t really think of Jane as his equal. Throughout their early relationship, Rochester calls her by inhuman language, like bird.
In the last post, Jane and Rochester were in the garden. Rochester has tricked Jane into believing he was engaged to Blanche. Jane tells him that she must leave because, basically, her heart is broken. Encouraged by her heartbreak (he’s such a gentleman), Rochester is moved to embrace her. She fights to get away from him–she thinks he’s engaged to Blanche, after all–and pushes against him.
He says, “Jane, be still; don’t struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.”
Jane will have none of this. Again, she rejects this portrayal of her inhumanity and says, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”
My first take was that Jane objects a lot in this one sentence, but when glancing at the diagram, it’s easy to miss the no, in “I am no bird,” and “no net ensnares me.” Without those negations, the sentence seems to say “I am bird,” “net ensnares me.” I feel even less convinced that she believes herself than I did in the previous post when she tells Rochester she’s just as much a person with a heart as he is.
To construct this diagram, I joined the three phrases at the beginning with a dotted vertical line, indicating they’re part of a compound sentence. This created three parallel horizontal baselines. These, taken with the parallel bisecting lines, seems to form a grid with the smaller vertical lines, looking like a net that traps Jane even as she insists she is free.
A few lines later in the story, Jane accepts Rochester’s proposal and will allow herself to be entangled further in his net. I see this diagram both showing us the way Jane gets trapped in the net–by engaging Rochester in conversation rather than action–and also showing her the way out. When I first diagrammed this sentence, I forgot the last clause, “which I now exert to leave you.” Without that, the diagram was almost a solid block.
But with it, that lingering tail of the sentences finds a crack in the block and leads away from it. In order for Jane to truly believe herself to be Rochester’s equal, she has to use her willpower–so much so that it almost kills her–and leave him.
I learned a lot from this diagram. I liked the steady beats of the beginning of the sentence, with three fairly simple clauses one after another (two negative and then one positive), which was then broken with the long tail that foreshadows the rest of the novel. That break in the pattern calls attention to itself like a beauty mark or a picture on a long white wall.