Heart of Sadness: What Makes A Sad Sentence "Sad"?

Today’s blog post comes from writer Aaron Gilbreath. The photo above is not of Aaron Gilbreath…

I conducted an informal poll. I asked people on Facebook to list the saddest sentence they’d ever read—not sad because it delivered bad news, but sad in style, tone and coloration. Responses were immediate: the closing sentence of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; the fourth line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies;” lines from A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and James Joyce’s “Eveline.” Even the Bible made an appearance; the first response a person offered was “Jesus wept.” People had clear ideas about what constituted ‘sad,’ and these sentences had made such strong emotional impressions that no one strained to remember them. From this random sampling I hoped to understand what gave sad sentences their power, the mechanics behind them, but they worked differently than expected.

Some sentences are sad because of their place in the story. Some work because of their relationship to the sentences around them. Others are sad on their accord. Like a solitary Neolithic stone in a field, the latter type can stand alone, stripped of all context, and still evoke melancholy; you don’t need to know what else has happens in the story. These were the sentences that interested me, the ones containing their own emotional combustion engines.

Rilkes’ line “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,” makes a provocative claim, but it’s too opaque and intellectual to make an emotional impression on me.

A Moveable Feast ends with: “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Like many of Hemingway’s sentences, it is simple and direct, which intensifies its affect. It’s hard to strip it of context, though, since it concludes an entire book. Great endings often ring like bells, making all that came before them reverberate more deeply and clearly. This sentence does, even as it summarizes. Because the author wrote it while looking back on past conditions that no longer existed, it also contains a sense of finality. Hemingway’s hindsight might have registered as melancholy to the person who cited it, but Hemingway doesn’t seem to be mourning anything in it. He seems matter of fact – “this is how Paris was” he says, as if saying by extension, “this is how life is; it changes, we move on.” The line describes a potentially somber remembrance without sounding sad itself.

“Jesus wept” does the opposite. It filled me with gloom, and I’m not even religious. Without knowing anything else about its context, you can feel its charge. A person wept. Weeping exhibits a deeper distress than sobbing or crying, something closer to desolation than sorrow. Whatever left Jesus weeping, it must have been severe. Here the Bible takes a cue from Hemingway: that brevity is powerful. Unlike Hemingway’s or Rilke’s sentences, this one is bleak by the sheer force of its mechanics. The line from Pooh Corner works that way, too.

It appears in the book’s first chapter: “It was still snowing as he stumped over the white forest track, and he expected to find Piglet warming his toes in front of the fire, but to his surprise he saw the door was wide open, and the more he looked inside the more Piglet wasn’t there.” I’d never read much Milne as a kid, yet this sentence knocked me over. Like the person who sent it, the part that affected me was the end: “the more he looked inside the more Piglet wasn’t there.” Here is someone searching for their friend. They look and fail to find him and still keep searching. That’s an unfortunate situation, but not tragic. What moves it from unfortunate to poignant is Milne’s particular choice and order of words.

Piglet wasn’t simply ‘missing’ or ‘absent,’ he wasn’t there. By defining it in the negative, Milne gives the dry fact of Piglet’s absence emotional weight. The technique works so well that the entire sentence seems to describe not an incident but a condition, a person who sounds unavailable when his friend needs him. Milne magnifies Pooh’s misery with equally inventive phrasing: the way that “the more he looked” “the more Piglet wasn’t there.” What might otherwise register as awkward wording here tightens the scene’s emotional screw, so that Pooh’s continued search moves him further into isolation and emphasizes Piglet’s absence, which deepens his and readers’ despair. From that angle, Pooh resembles someone searching not only for his friend but longing for companionship. When he doesn’t find it, we feel the sting of his unfulfilled need.

Joyce’s sentence struck me more like Hemingway’s than the Bible’s. “Eveline” begins: “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.” This quiet line sets a scene. Although dusk’s invasion into the light of day suggests a dark undercurrent and a pending narrative shift – as night marches toward the woman, what unwelcome things lay ahead? – the sentence doesn’t dampen the atmosphere with too glum a feeling. For me, it raises questions: What’s she doing there? If she sits alone by the window, is she also alone in life? Does she feel like an outsider? I sit alone by windows all the time and don’t feel sad. Joyce later tells us that the woman “was tired” and that few people passed outside on the street, but by themselves, the story’s eleven introductory words are neither bleak nor heartrending, only suggestive—unless you’re someone who feels lonely while sitting by a window. Then maybe this sentence feels sad. Maybe the person who sent it to me feels like an outsider. Maybe that’s how many sad sentences work, via transference: they seem sad when the reader sees themselves in the character, or the tone of their lives matches that of the line.

Joyce’s might be key to understanding sad sentences: their emotional impact doesn’t stem solely from the combination of words. The impact often results from the circumstances of readers’ lives. Nothing gets read in a vacuum. Where “Jesus wept” seems engineered to illicit sorrow, other sentences that seem sad on their own merits often draw part of their power from conditions off the page. This is why there’s no template, no form. What makes one sad varies person to person, and how a reader receives the text depends partly on their lives’ dominant themes, on how they were feeling already. What was happening in your life at the time you read Brideshead Revisited? What were you wrestling with? This is the reason certain song lyrics speak to us one year and fail to the next: our circumstances change. That’s possibly why many of these sentences seemed sad to the people who selected them but not to me: whatever personal context people brought to the text, I lacked. At least, that was the lesson I drew from the survey.

When I asked my girlfriend about the saddest sentence she’d read, she read me a line from Francisco Goldman’s memoir Say Her Name, and it stopped me cold: “But then will come the day when I will have been no longer with Aura longer than I was with Aura.” Of all the lines I’d sampled, this struck me as the saddest. First, there’s the construction.

Goldman could have said “But then will come the day when I will have been without Aura,” but saying “no longer with” more strongly drove home the enduring agony of her absence. Before readers even begin the book, they know that Goldman’s wife dies tragically. The jacket copy announces it. But the book, like this sentence, isn’t strictly about her death. It’s about the misery of living without her, and not just the author’s misery, but the misery and tragedy we all suffer while spending more time without the people we love, than with. To convey this vacancy, he says no longer with Aura, instead of without. What makes this particular sentence sadder than the news it delivers, and sadder than the other lines I read, is the way it tapped something existential that already inhabited the forefront of my mind: loss, grief, the inevitability of death.

Not long before my girlfriend read me it, she and I had confessed our love for each other. Our chemistry made me hopeful but nervous. We’d fallen for the wrong people before, and finally, we had found the right people, yet so many forces could snatch us away. The thought of falling out of love didn’t terrify me. It was the thought that something could happen to her, that she would die and I’d lose her. Neither she nor I have yet to experience a major loss. We’d had classmates die, but we haven’t lost a parent, sibling or best friend, though we’re at that age where we know we will soon. That dark reality haunts me: I know it’s coming, but when? Goldman’s sentence hit me where I felt most exposed.

Now, as my girlfriend and I enjoy another year together, we do so in the shadow of that and Milne’s sentences. My parents age. My grandmother lives in a nursing home. The love of my life drives a long way to work on a problematic road. I want to tell them all, “Don’t let me live without you.” I don’t want us to end up like Pooh, searching and searching for someone who, the more you look, the more they aren’t there. Milne’s line seems devastating now. In ten, twenty, thirty years, I suspect it will feel the same, only for different reasons.

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for The New York Times, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, The Believer, Brick and The Threepenny Review, and articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and Flavorwire. His book This Is: Essays on Jazz comes out in fall, and Future Tense Books published his chapbook A Secondary Landscape in 2013. He’s working on a book about crowding and lives aarongilbreath.wordpress.com