Punctuation Matters, by Jennifer Truong

Punctuation Matters, by Jennifer Truong

About the Author:

I am in the International Business Studies program. In my third semester, I took an English course on mental health in literature. The present essay is an attempt to find the intentions behind literature and highlight the interpretive act of storytelling. More precisely, it emphasizes the role of punctuation in The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. I argue that punctuation is a series of stylistic devices that engender awe and perspective within literature. Ocean Vuong, my favourite writer, made me develop this profound admiration and wonder towards language and literature.

Jennifer Truong
Prof. Liam Lachance
English 103: Mental Health in Literature

Punctuation Matters

A literary work encompasses several components that assist in the conveyance of meaning. Notably, the stylistic choices of punctuation can manipulate one’s understanding of the language imposed by the author. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante renders a powerful narrative that ventures through the darkest realms of Olga’s mind. The employment of punctuation in this novel underlines the impact of stylistic devices on the reader’s interpretation.

Punctuations are not merely textual markers: they have a crucial role in the interpretative act of the story by binding thoughts and clauses together. They sustain tremendous power and can “manipulate language to fit a specific purpose” (Sawyer 2). A sense of enlightenment is evoked as “the meaning of … life ─ [Olga] suddenly understood ─ were only a dazzlement of late adolescence” (Ferrante 124). A greater emphasis is produced by framing the core of the thought with em dashes. This manipulation of punctuation builds on “the emotional perspective” (Sawyer 7) of the protagonist’s world and points to the dissolving “illusions that ma[d]e [Olga’s] life bearable” (Frydman 210). This interpretation of the narrative gives punctuation a broader place and meaning in literature, as it builds on the world of semantics by unravelling Olga’s psyche. Textual markers can highlight a delineation between thoughts and reality: Olga isolates Mario from the family as “he left, without a thought for the sleeping children” (Ferrante 19). The comma erects a barricade between the subjects, and aids to crystallize Mario’s desertion. It can also allude to Olga’s attempt to remediate from the “absence of sense” (10) that she appropriated from Mario: an endeavour to balance “reason and insanity” (Wood 5), to safeguard “a cohesive identity” (3), to extract the irrational and “hold on to life” (Ferrante 73). Punctuation serves as “road signs in language” (Sawyer 2) and displays an artistic purpose that allows for various interpretations of the novel. This thus engenders an exploration of the written language in all its wonders and complexity, by illustrating a “world in which suffering seems everywhere and infinite” (Frydman 210).

Conversely, punctuation can generate a dissociative outcome between details and clauses (Sawyer 6). Olga’s desperate attempt to ground herself in reality is repudiated by a psychotic break: an exhibition of her mind in which a “battlefield” between “survival and explosion” (Wood 5) materializes. Olga insists that she “didn’t hit them, [she] had never done it, at most, [she] had threatened to do it” (Ferrante 102). This refutation is highlighted through the recurring commas, and it evokes a sense of hastiness to justify her repulsive behaviour. The arrangement of the textual markers creates physical distance within the thoughts to differentiate “what one threatens and what one really does” (102). Olga’s conviction of this segregation accentuates the denial of inflicting harm upon her children: a desolate effort to combat her irrationality. Her rebuttal of reality gives layers to the character and embodies the internal conflicts that one can experience in the outside world. This narrative points to the exquisite delicacy of fiction as it makes the plausible reality seem repulsive by depicting a woman heading towards insanity. Olga acknowledges that “[s]omething in her senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling” (107) occurs as she spirals down to the depth of madness. Short contemplations that can be grouped into “one continuous sentence” (Sawyer 5) are delineated by a period to produce a mechanical effect and undermine the severity of Olga’s state. She attempts to “knit the disorder of the world” (Frydman 211), which can allude to one’s habit of creating false boundaries, to survive through this illusion of a stable and reassuring reality. A detachment upon the character’s atypical behaviour is thus conveyed to evade her present conflicts. This usage of punctuations explores the ‘why’ in how things are written, such that one can consider the detrimental effects of losing oneself once the illusion of stability is corrupted.

Furthermore, Olga’s narrative captures the “experience of thinking” in all its complexity and chaos (Frisella). Stream of consciousness can help readers venture through Olga’s subconscious as punctuation assists in the depiction of the protagonist’s inner world. The textual markers offer the ability to replicate “how the human naturally pieces details together” (Sawyer 6) by generating long and fragmented thoughts that are bound by these stylistic threads. They help render Olga’s progressive descent into madness in a compelling manner, as she convinces herself that “[she] was reacting well, very well … in spite of everything, [she] wasn’t leaving [herself]” (Ferrante 116). The commas are used to connect the character’s diverse thoughts and unify them to create the illusion of a single and coherent clause. This interpretation of the narrative can provide a broader meaning to literature: an expression of the human soul and psyche through the manipulation of language. The protagonist was “consumed by desperation” but “had to reason” (117), therefore, the illogical arises and clashes with the burden of reality. The illustration of the mental processes allows a pattern of emotions and thoughts to surface by intensifying the “normal discontents of living” (10). This description of Olga’s inner world does not yield a solution to her conflicts, but rather, allows the readers to walk through this journey with the character and, eventually, emerge out of her abstruse state. One becomes frantic and trapped within the premises of their thoughts, as an attempt to repudiate the irrational. Through the effective use of language and style, this battle against oneself is illustrated in a way that can unite readers around a common struggle and cultivate meaning out of it. Stream of consciousness is an enthralling way to venture through Olga’s incoherent but valid narrative. It can demonstrate the power of one’s mind when attempting to compensate for the absurd.

To conclude, punctuation should be interpreted beyond its superficial intent, as it displays the impact of manipulating language to experience the protagonist’s world. This act of creating meaning from the use of punctuation hints at the ever-evolving artistic wonders that lie within the narration to entice emotion and purpose. Words are merely assemblies of letters that humans attribute meaning to, and the combination of these words creates a worthwhile narrative that comprises the delightful form of art known as literature. In some way, this artistic expression of words can emulate life by transposing human experiences and challenges into the fictional world. Thus, through storytelling and fictional representations of life, social criticisms can be rendered to incite change and increase awareness of issues in contemporary society.

Works Cited

Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment. Europa Editions, 2021.

Frisella, Emily. “Stream of Consciousness.” LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 5 May 2017. Web. https://www.litcharts.com/literary-devices-and-terms/stream-of-consciousness, 23 Oct. 2021.

Frydman, Sophia. “Shifting Skins: Love and Breakdown”. Studies in Gender & Sexuality, vol. 19, no. 3, July 2018, pp. 204–216. EBSCOhost, https://dc153.dawsoncollege.qc.ca:2312/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=131751848&site=eds live&scope=site, 23 Oct. 2021.

Sawyer, Rachael. “Teaching Punctuation with Literature (2018).  Academic Excellence Showcase Proceedings. 135, https://digitalcommons.wou.edu/cgi/viewcontent .cgi?article=1136&context=aes, 23 Oct. 2021.

Wood, James. “Women on the Verge.”.New Yorker, vol. 88, no.44, Jan. 2012, pp.69-73. EBSCOhost, https://dc153.dawsoncollege.qc.ca:2312/login?url=https://search. ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=85470380&site=eds live&scope=site, 23 Oct. 2021.

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