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Please help me understand the meaning of “settled into its unbreakable parts” as used in this excerpt below from Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away:

He was sitting forward on the seat, looking out the window at a hill covered with old used-car bodies. In the indistinct darkness, they seemed to be drowning into the ground, about half-submerged already. The city hung in front of them on the side of the mountain as if it were a larger part of the same pile, not yet buried so deep. The fire had gone out of it and it appeared settled into its unbreakable parts.

The boy did not intend to go to the schoolteacher’s until daylight and [. . . .]

Please tell me what the it refers to here. Is it the city, or the fire?

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Literary interpretation is off topic on ELU. – Kris May 5 '13 at 11:13
My guess is that it's the pile, but the sentence is just ambiguous. – gmcgath May 5 '13 at 11:39
It's all figurative anyway, but I don't see how fire can "settle into unbreakable parts". It has to refer to either the city itself, or (as @gmcgath says), the pile (that contains the city). Whatever - Off Topic Lit Crit. – FumbleFingers May 5 '13 at 12:23
@Kris But that is the only thing this user ever posts. Are all his postings offtopic? – tchrist May 5 '13 at 15:14
@ Peyman: I doubt there's much point in trying to identify which elements of "the city" are its "unbreakable parts". Large buildings, parkland areas, major road junctions, whatever. They're all just identifiable "items" - which I assume, like the pile of car bodies further back, no longer function (either as part of a coherent whole, or even as individual items). – FumbleFingers May 5 '13 at 15:50
up vote 2 down vote accepted

It's the city.

In the preceeding sentence city is clearly the subject and the other nouns mentioned (side, mountain, part, pile) are only there to describe aspects of the city.

It follows that, in the beginning of the next sentence, it must refer to the city:

The fire had gone out of it [the city]

Grammatically, fire is the subject of that clause. However, in terms of what O'Connor is talking about, her main focus is still the city.

The second part of the sentence reads and it appeared settled into its unbreakable parts.

Here it can only refer back to the it which immediately preceeds it:

The fire had gone out of it and it appeared settled into its unbreakable parts.

A good writer will refocus the reader's attention if she wants to change from talking about the city to something else. She cannot have it refer to the city AND the fire in the same sentence without restructuring the whole thing.

If she wanted to switch focus to the fire, the simplest thing would be to omit the second it:

The fire had gone out of it and appeared settled into its unbreakable parts.

Replies to Peyman's comments:

  1. It is not a null subject here. I think you are mistaking the original phrase for a neutral part of speech such as It was a sunny day. Your example introduces a new noun (book). I'll substitute 'boy' for 'book' to avoid too many confusing its.

It seemed/appeared the boy was right or It seemed/appeared he was right.
Who seemed to be right?
Answer: The boy.

In the original sentence there is no 2nd noun/pronoun, only the verb 'settled'.
Who or what appears settled?
Answer: It does.

Comments 2 & 3: Your restructured sentence could be interpreted the way you have suggested, but that is not what O'Connor wrote. You have removed it appeared, based on your 'open book' example, but there is no 'open book' equivalent in O'Connor's sentence. The thing that appears settled is it, and I maintain this is the city for the reasons given above.

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but Mynamite maybe It is a null subject here 'It', like: It seemed the book was open. or It appeared the book was open. – Peyman May 7 '13 at 21:51
so if we delete this phrase 'it appeared' it would be like this: the fire had gone out of it and [...] settled into its unbreakable parts. – Peyman May 7 '13 at 21:54
then it is the fire that is settled into city's unbreakable parts. are you in agree with me? – Peyman May 7 '13 at 21:56
@Peyman I'll reply in my answer as there is not enough space in the comments. – Mynamite May 7 '13 at 23:23
Thank you for this clarification. – Peyman May 8 '13 at 7:53

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