Autonomous Body Parts


How not to dismember your characters.

I love Thomas Hardy’s novels. Who can fail to be moved by the plight of tragic Tess, when she realises cruel Alec D’Urberville has deprived her of the right to happiness with her true love, Angel Clare; or Jude’s horror at the death of his children, or Henchard’s anguish at his relapse into temptation?

But, wonderful a writer though he is, even Hardy falls prey to the sin of autonomous body parts at times. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy’s villain Sir Alec D’Urberville is described as having ‘a bold rolling eye’, as though it had become detached from his face and was gyrating around the room. And it’s always difficult to stop my students from laughing when they read, at the end of the novel, that, ‘Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front.’ (The ‘vast erection’ is, in fact, Stonehenge but it’s hard to tell at this stage)!

Lesser writers are even more blatant: her eyes followed him across the room, his arm snaked around her shoulders, her elbow dug him in the ribs. In the wrong context these gaffes are comic and can sometimes ruin what is otherwise a tender scene. Much better to make it clear who the body parts belong to: ‘She watched him closely as he walked across the room’; ‘he snaked his arm around her shoulders’; ‘she dug him in the ribs with her elbow.’

If we want to avoid our readers laughing inappropriately, we need to tie down those body parts – before they wander off and create all sorts of havoc!