Parsing Dickens

By Maeve Maddox

A reader, reacting to a recent post about parsing, responded with this literary reflection:

Two sentences from Dickens Bleak House, chapter one, confuse me as to how to parse them. 

[The rain in London has been heavy and the streets a running with mud.]

“Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.”

It’s the genius of Dickens that the reader must visualize mud everywhere and dogs running in and out of crowded streets with horses’ hooves splattering mud into the air with every step. If he’d written in standard formal English, the reader could simply note the story ‘fact’ for future reference in case dirty dog and dirty horses might be important. You can see the Londoners trying to avoid the dogs and step into flying muck from the passing horses. Read more carefully, and you can hear it, smell it, and even taste the air.

But how the Dickens–pun intended–do you parse it?

My first reaction to this email was admiration for the reader’s fine appreciation of Dickens, master of the inspired sentence fragment.

My second reaction was, why would anyone want to parse Dickens?

But, since the question was asked, my answer is, “very easily.”

Dogs—noun, subject of the fragment
undistinguishable—adjective, qualifies “dogs”
in—preposition, governs “mire”
mire—noun, object of the preposition “in”

Horses—noun, subject of the fragment
scarcely—adverb, modifies adjective “better”
better—adjective qualifies “horses”
splashed— past participle used as adjective to describe “horses”
to—preposition governs “blinkers”
their—possessive adjective, qualifies “blinkers”
very—adjective qualifies “blinkers”
​blinkers—noun, object of preposition “to”​

A complete sentence has a subject and a verb; a fragment usually has one or the other. In modern usage, very is almost always used as an adverb, but it can also function as an adjective. For example, “The sailors mutinied for very hunger.” In the Dickens example, very serves to emphasize the extremity of the blinkers from the horse’s feet, which could be expected to be covered with mud.

It’s nice to know that Dickens is still being read for pleasure and with aesthetic appreciation.

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3 Responses to “Parsing Dickens”

  • Sean

    You skipped “blinkers” in your parsing.

  • venqax

    Maybe they’re there, but you can’t see them from the side.

  • Maeve

    Sean,
    I’ve asked Daniel to put the blinkers back on the horse.
    Venqax,
    Face With Tears of Joy

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