Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Example of a Good Paragraph

What makes a good paragraph? Proper grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, and also composition, structure, cohesion, and imagination.

To explain, I use an example from G.K. Chesterton's The Victorian Age in Literature in which he discusses Charlotte Brontë and her novel Jane Eyre. But if you haven't read the novel, you'll want to skip the following paragraph and the rest of this blog entry because there are spoilers--I'll be writing more about good paragraphs in another blog entry, so check back next week for more information about why good paragraphs are good.

"In any case, it is Charlotte Brontë who enters Victorian literature. The shortest way of stating her strong contribution is, I think, this: that she reached the highest romance through the lowest realism. She did not set out with Amadis of Gaul in a forest or with Mr. Pickwick in a comic club. She set out with herself, with her own dingy clothes, and accidental ugliness, and flat, coarse, provincial household; and forcibly fused all such muddy materials into a spirited fairy-tale. If the first chapters on the home and school had not proved how heavy and hateful sanity can be, there would really be less point in the insanity of Mr. Rochester's wife--or the not much milder insanity of Mrs. Rochester's husband. She discovered the secret of hiding the sensational in the commonplace; and Jane Eyre remains the best of her books (better even than Villette), because while it is a human document written in blood, it is also one of the best blood-and-thunder detective stories in the world" (Chesterton, G.K. The Victorian Age in Literature, 49).

Chesterton simply writes of Charlotte Brontë's importance to Victorian literature and he could have done so this way--

Charlotte Brontë was important to Victorian literature because she combined romance and realism. She did not use romance like is discussed in the story of Amadis of Gaul or realism like in Dicken's The Pickwick Papers. She was from a humble background and started with that in her writing. Her novel Jane Eyre begins with realism about Jane's home and school, then switches to romance at Thornfield Hall and pure excitement when she writes about how Mr. Rochester is married already and that his wife is insane. This combination and contrast of the commonplace and sensational makes her works special, particularly Jane Eyre because even though it talks about things that people can relate to, like difficulty at school, there is also the detective story aspect when we find out what is really in the third story of Thornfield Hall.

But he didn't, fortunately for him and the rest of us.

The paragraph works as Chesterton wrote it because of its transition in the thesis sentence and the imagination with which he elaborates on the thesis. He begins his explanation of Charlotte Brontë's importance by using a sentence with an active verb, "reached," and describing what was reached--"the highest romance through the lowest realism," while employing the implied metaphor of a journey (Chesterton 49). Then he goes on to define that by continuing with the journey metaphor with "She did not set out," and by setting up a contrast through references to the romantic story Amadis of Gaul and the prosaic Mr. Pickwick of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. From there he takes the information back to Brontë to explain in a few details her own prosaic background that makes her venture into romance surprising, and all the more because she used herself and her background as not only the starting point for romance but the origin. Then Chesterton turns to the book itself and the realism and romance within it, again using contrasts to show how those instances of prose and romance work together to make the novel effective. After those details, he sums up Brontë's writing in general and her novel in particular, contrasting again the prose and romance in the work though in different words that reinforce the paragraph's theme: "because while it is a human document written in blood, it is also one of the best blood-and-thunder detective stories in the world" (Chesterton 49). It's not difficult to see how metaphor, allusions, vivid description, a careful use of comparison-contrast structure, and imagination makes this paragraph cohere much better than my imagination-less rewriting.


Chesterton, G. K. The Victorian Age in Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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