Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Plain, evocative -- and non-vegetarian!

'Patient Pursuit of the Possible' was the title of the introductory chapter of a PhD thesis that came to me for editing last month.  I replaced that alliterative but vague title with a plain one: 'Introduction to the Study'.  The title of the last chapter ('Paradigm Shift') was extravagantly grand.  I put a circle round it and wrote 'Conclusion'.  The titles were elegant phrases, borrowed from J S Bruner in the case of the first one, and Thomas Kuhn in the case of the second.  But the problem with them was that they didn't fit in: they didn't indicate the central idea of the respective chapters.

It is difficult to find a title that is fitting as well as evocative.  The Grapes of Wrath, the title of a novel by John Steinbeck, is at once both.  In the closing scene of the novel, it is raining heavily, and Rose of Sharon, who has just been delivered of a still-born baby, is being carried along the high road by Pa and Uncle John.  They see a barn and take her inside. They find an old man lying there with a boy bending over him.  The boy says, "He ain't ate for days – reckon he’ll die unless he gets soup or milk."  Rose of Sharon lies down by the old man, undoes her dress and pulls his head down to her breast.  "You got to", she says and her face lights up with a mysterious smile.  The title, taken from 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' is itself a reference to Revelation.  Rose of Sharon, who gives life to the old man, is the Beloved of the Song of Songs "whose breasts are like unto a cluster of grapes", the Beloved who says: "Take, eat: this is My Body…"

If It Die, the title of an autobiographical fragment by Andre Gide, is reminiscent of St John's Gospel ("Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit) as well as Rousseau's Confessions.  Here are a few other titles that are evocative: A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Power and the Glory, The Sound and the Fury, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The God of Small Things.

A good number of literary masterpieces have very simple titles.  Tolstoy's tour de force, which is recognized as the greatest novel in world literature, has a plain title: War and Peace.  Dr Zhivago is plainer than that.  Animal Farm and 1984, the titles of Orwell's famous novels, are matter-of-fact.  Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are some of the most fascinating books in world literature, but their titles are colourless.  But the books urge you to raise the old Shakespearian question: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." 

Some books are a real feast, but their titles turn my vegetarian stomach.  But I'm developing a stronger stomach, particularly after reading Chicken Soup for the Soul.  In any case, I'd prefer such books to those whose titles are as pleasing as vegetarian food but the content revolting.


  1. really good one sir............does this mean that simplicity is the best way to avoid mistakes???

  2. To avoid getting used to attempting to impress others, Wilsun (I am trying my best to spell your name as you spell it, instead of the more common 'Wilson'). The books I have mentioned are by no means simple: their meaning is so complex. But their language is not at all ornamental; it is deceptively simple. I have mentioned Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms.' If you read that novel or anything else written by Hemingway, you will understand what I am trying to say. His language is simple and his sentences are amazingly short producing what is called a staccato effect, but his thoughts are far too complex.

    For that matter, take the Bible. Its language is deceptively simple. But it has layers and layers of significance. Scholars are busy peeling off layer after layer of that small onion called the Bible. There's no end to the fascination the Bible holds: scholarly books have been written on it, movies have been made, and fiction writers like Dan Brown are busy making money out of it!

    1. How can we acquire that sort of writing skill? I mean writing in simple language.

    2. Wilsun, I wonder how I failed to see your comment, made five years ago. But for Facebook's suggestion today that this blog post, written this day five years ago, be shared again, I wouldn't have noticed your question remaining unanswered.

      Now the answer. Why don't you read Alan Warner's book, 'A Short Guide to English Style,' written some 60 years ago. The entire book is an answer to your question.

  3. Good to have the previlige of reading your write up after a very long time.
    I really enjoyed as I could feel it as if you were (as usually like in my BA Spl. Eng. Classes)saying it live right infront of my eyes.
    TItles and the contents that the titles comprise could be well understood only when personally read.

    Whether a write up is a Satirical, humourous, ironical etc. could be felt and declared only when it is read thoroughly. Besides, reader's position-academic, professional, societal, economical etc. has its own weitage.


  4. You are right, Prasad. Unless you have read the books, what I am saying may not make much sense. When you have time, read a few other posts also. This blog has quite a lot of posts.