Exceptionally Long Sentences in Literature and Why They Work
We learn in grammar school about run-on sentences and how to avoid them. In general, the thought about long sentences is that they make the text harder to read.
A long sentence is difficult to read as the writer keeps the reader waiting for the main idea until the middle or end of the sentence so that they must remember how the long sentence began. The words run on, and commas, semicolons, and conjunctions subdivide the core subsets.
A standard sentence is 14 words or fewer is easy to understand, and readers retain 90% of the content. Long, complex sentences 20 words and above increase reading difficulty. A sentence with more than 40 words is exceptionally long and hard to comprehend.
Even so, there are plenty of examples in literature of rebels breaking the rule concerning how long a sentence should be. Some authors are skilled enough that the long sentences they’ve written work and are easy to follow.
Great long opening sentences in literature
Some of the most incredible opening lines are a few words; outbursts, pleas, or facts. For example,” Call me Ishmael” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). Still, there is a beauty in long opening sentences that span with a series of dashes, commas, colons, and semicolons that will hold your breath.
Here are some of the three best ones.
- Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759)
“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.”
- Charles Dickens’s famous A tale of two Cities opened (1859)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883)
“Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.”
Away from the grand long opening, take a look for yourself at some of the longest sentences in literature and why they work.
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill
At 161-words, philosopher John Stuart Mill discusses the feelings of power, excitement, and pride in one long run-on. Mill “tricks” the reader by creating a drawn-out explanation separated by commas, colons, and semicolons. The sentence affects your perceived sensible logic, but you later understand the idea by re-reading the sentence.
“We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, as appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it; but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong that nothing which conflicts with it could be otherwise than momentarily an object of desire to them.”
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
To write about sex in the 1960s was quite scandalous, especially when a woman got pregnant before getting married. In Rabbit, Run, the 163-word sentence gives insight into the narrator’s anxious feelings when he finds out that his best girl missed her period.
“But then they were married (she felt awful about being pregnant before but Harry had been talking about marriage for a while and anyway laughed when she told him in early February about missing her period and said Great she was terribly frightened and he said Great and lifted her put his arms around under her bottom and lifted her like you would a child he could be so wonderful when you didn’t expect it in a way it seemed important that you didn’t expect it there was so much nice in him she couldn’t explain to anybody she had been so frightened about being pregnant and he made her be proud) they were married after her missing her second period in March and she was still little clumsy dark-complected Janice Springer and her husband was a conceited lunk who wasn’t good for anything in the world Daddy said and the feeling of being alone would melt a little with a little drink.”
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” The infamous opening line to Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities is quite long. While not as long as some of these others, the first 181 words of the book are intriguing and hold your attention.
On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
The essay On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf takes you on a 183-word ride about the spiritual change illness can have on us. The weight of abstractions doesn’t usually work in long sentences. But in Woolf’s case, it sets a clear path to the most critical phrase at the very end. It is a sentence that literature should embrace, not fear.
“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
In Les Miserables, the description of Louis Philippe as a ruler is completed in one 823-word sentence. The length of the sentence demands that you be patient. As drawn out as it may seem, you eventually get to the end and understand how the length of the sentence plays a role in the plot.
“The son of a father to whom history will accord certain attenuating circumstances, but also as worthy of esteem as that father had been of blame; possessing all private virtues and many public virtues; careful of his health, of his fortune, of his person, of his affairs, knowing the value of a minute and not always the value of a year; sober, serene, peaceable, patient; a good man….”
Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
The quality of a lengthy sentence is how William Faulker got away with his 1,288-word prose. The sentence shows the reader the inner workings of the characters and excites curiosity. Despite there not being any periods to pause and absorb what you just read, the length keeps the characters continually moving and works great alongside the plot.
“Just exactly like Father if Father had known as much about it the night before I went out there as he did the day after I came back thinking Mad impotent old man who realized at last that there must be some limit even to the capabilities of a demon for doing harm, who must have seen his situation as that of the show girl, the pony, who realizes that the principal tune she prances to comes not from horn and fiddle and drum but from a clock and calendar, must have seen himself as the old wornout cannon which realizes that it can deliver just one more fierce shot and crumble to dust in its own furious blast and recoil, who looked about upon the scene which was still within his scope and compass and saw son gone, vanished, more insuperable to him now than if the son were dead since now (if the son still lived) his name would be different ……”
Ulysses by James Joyce
Often cited for being the longest sentence ever written is one by author James Joyce. In his novel Ulysses, the character Molly Bloom has a monologue that goes on for 36 pages and has a total of 3,687 words. The only reason that a sentence this long works is because it is a monologue. Molly is speaking her thoughts out loud, and when combined with other punctuation, it is easy to follow along.
The Assignment by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Assignment is a novella published in 1986 by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The novella is published in 24 parts as 24 sentences. The inspiration to break the grammar rules came from listening to Glenn Gould performing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier I, which has 24 movements.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
In more recent literature, Irish fiction author Mike McCormack published a novel in 2016 that is one sentence long. The novel follows Marcus Conway, a deceased middle-aged man who returns on All Souls Day to reminisce about the past. One of the novel’s main themes is chaos, and having text with no period adds to the idea perfectly.
The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship by Gabriel García Márquez
The 1999 book tells of an internal monologue of a boy who becomes an assertive young man. His imagination is so strong that he believes he saw a ship. His mother and villagers do not believe him, and he gets a beating for lying he saw a ship.
In the 2156 words sentence, he begins angrily, “Now they’re going to see who I am, he said to himself in his strong new man’s voice..” The yearning to prove he saw the ship severally makes his imagination appear real.
The Sentence by Donald Barthelme
Donald explains what a long sentence is in a 2569 words sentence. A sentence flows steadily from the top to the “bottom of the page.” It is a deviation from the sentences teachers teach.
He gives analogies of what he feels about the sentence. It is like that horrible feeling when you listen to the FM playing a rock song, and someone interrupts you. He concludes his definition with, “the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones.”
The Autumn of the Patriach by Gabriel García Márquez
The Autumn of the Patriarch is a great story about a cruel ruler in the Caribbean, showing how leaders can abuse power.
It’s a symphony of humanity’s most outstanding virtues and worst vices. Gabriel García Márquez paints a vivid picture of a dying dictator trapped in the prison of his own rule and includes a 120-word long sentence.
“She said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you’ll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother.”
If you think these sentences were long, the longest sentence to date is by author Jonathan Coe in his book The Rotters’ Club. Coe holds the record at 13,955 words! The inspiration came to Coe from a Czech novel that was written in one long sentence.
Did the long opening impress you or take your breath away?
What do you think about run-on sentences? Do they work in literature or should they be banned? Let us know in the comments!
Hopefully, you get to read the entire books from where we drew these excerpts, and you could if you learned how to speed read with Iris Reading Speed Reading Foundation Class.