Windows Ain’t Walls

Ross MacDonald on what it feels like to be a thief and why his quote works.

Title: Old and new London : a narrative of its history, its people, and its places Year: 1873 (1870s)
Windows and Walls, and under London.

Quote: But I remembered how it felt to be a thief. It felt like living in a room without any windows. Then it felt like living in a room without any walls.

In Find a Victim (1954) by Ross Macdonald, we hear this thought of the main character, private detective Lew Archer as he is witnessing an interrogation of a thief. He tells us his own experience in two well-crafted sentences of parallel structure.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Neatness and contrast.

1922 (1920s) Authors: Grimm, Jacob, 1785-1863 Grimm, Wilhelm, 1786-1859 Crane, Lucy, 1842-1882 Crane, Walter, 1845-1915
The story of Rapunzel from the Brothers Grimm starts with the theft of the plant: rapunzel or rampion.

The life of a thief, inevitably dangerous and mostly thought of as disordered, gets described in two sentences that are so similar, so simple. Lew packages the complex situation in a plain box and hands it to us. Neat, contrasting the messiness inside.

But the two sentences also contain words which the reader would classify as related: windows and walls. Windows belong on walls, or are holes in walls. But the parallel sentences contrast the two words, even if it is not immediately obvious why. What I’m calling contrast here I should really be calling paradox.

What is at the core of the Quote?

Physical researches on sensation [by] Frank Allen [and others] Year: 1902 (1900s) Authors: Allen, Frank, 1874-
“The gustatory equivalent of the Fechner Paradox.”
Technically speaking, it’s at least three things:  paradox, isocolon, and alliteration.

The paradox: a room without windows is an unpleasant, claustrophobic hiding place, whereas a room without walls is no room at all and offers no protection. At first the thief has to hide, then the thief has nowhere to hide.

Isocolon, or in this case the bicolon, is a technical name for the two parallel structures: it felt like … windows, and it felt like … walls.

Alliteration, the repetition of a similar sound or letter in adjacent words, doesn’t figure here in the classical sense. Rather, it’s a cute coincidence (or is it?) that the two words which map onto each other via the isocolon parallelism, windows and walls, both start with the same letter.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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