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I found this sentence in a reading material from a GRE (Graduate Record Examination) test. And I found it incredibly difficult for my to understand.

A desire to throw over reality a light that never was might give way abruptly to the desire on the part of what we might consider a novelist-scientist to record exactly and concretely the structure and texture of a flower.

Any help is appreciated. It would be better if you could disassemble the sentence into parts. (e.g. main structure: A desire ... to the desire)

Edit: It is from the paragraph below: (Don't blame me. It is one paragraph as it is.)

In Hardy‘s novels, various impulses were sacrificed to each other inevitably and often. Inevitably, because Hardy did not care in the way that novelists such as Line Flaubert or James cared, and therefore took paths of least resistance. Thus, one impulse often surrendered to a fresher one and, unfortunately, instead of exacting a compromise, simply disappeared. A desire to throw over reality a light that never was might give way abruptly to the desire on the part of what we might consider a novelist-scientist to record exactly and concretely the structure and texture of a flower. In this instance, the new impulse was at least an energetic one, and thus its indulgence did not result in a relaxed style. But on other occasions Hardy abandoned a perilous, risky, and highly energizing impulse in favor of what was for him the fatally relaxing impulse to classify and schematize abstractly. When a relaxing impulse was indulged, the style—that sure index of an author‘s literary worth—was certain to become verbose.

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Yes, I can believe that. It's incredibly difficult for anybody to understand, and that's done on purpose. Immediate Constituent Analysis seems called for. Start by finding the main verb of the sentence, and its auxiliary verb(s) if any. Then locate its subject. Etc. –  John Lawler Aug 1 at 20:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

One way to get at the structure of a tortured sentence like this is by temporarily ignoring the content of noun phrases and verb phrases and treating them like generic content blocks, so "connective tissue" like conjunctions and prepositions are easier to spot. I'll try to describe my thought process in real time, so to speak, so you can see what I'm doing.

A stretch of text like "reality a light that never was might" comes close to being pure word salad on the first read-through, so I just stroll along without even trying to interpret it until I get to "might give way abruptly." This appears to be a good candidate for our predicate, so let's start parsing here. Abstracting away some of the more complex material that precedes the verb gives us:

A desire to [do something] might give way abruptly to [something else].

Reading a little further, we come across the word "desire" again. Excellent! One desire might give way to another desire. Okay. We can do this. Unfortunately, instead of getting a "to" after the second desire, we get this weird parenthetical crap. We know there will almost surely be a "to" eventually, so let's skip ahead until we find it... ah, there it is: it's a desire to record something. After a couple more adverbs, we find out what that "something" is: the structure and texture of a flower. This gives us:

A desire to [do something] might give way abruptly to the desire ... to record ... the structure and texture of a flower.

So now we know basically what's happening here: the subject of our analysis (Thomas Hardy, apparently) is prone to start doing one thing, only to suddenly shift gears and start talking about flowers. Now we just fill in the blanks:

  • What does Hardy start out doing before he moves on to flowers? He "throw[s] over reality a light that never was." This is achingly pretentious, but it seems to mean that Hardy has a different way of looking at things.
  • "on the part of what we might consider a novelist-scientist": This is a parenthetical dropped uneasily into the middle of the sentence, which really just says that Hardy is both a novelist and a scientist.
  • "exactly and concretely": These are just adverbs, describing the care with which Hardy records the details of the flower.

So now we know: Hardy, who was both a novelist and a scientist, tends to be impulsive in his writing, and is prone to shifting abruptly from poetic descriptions of reality to prosaic, technical examinations of minutiae.

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Very helpful explanation on the second "desire". Accepted –  qwert Aug 1 at 22:02

'A desire to throw over reality/ a light that never was/ might give way to the desire/ on the part of what we might consider a novelist-scientist/ to record exactly and concretely/ the structure and texture of a flower.

Consider this statement which conveys the essence of the GRE sentence: 'Women are most attractive at a distance'. A man's fuzzy vision of a woman at a distance 'throws a positive light' on the attractiveness of the woman. This view may change abruptly at closer range when the man's vision detects faults in the woman's figure, legs, nose and dyed hair.

Substituting 'flower' for 'woman', picture a romantic poet/scientist rhapsodizing over the beauty of a flower (at distance). Then picture the same poet putting on his scientist's hat at close range as he records the uglier details of the flower's real structure, stripped of the cosmetic effects of distance.

Please, no 'political correctness' sermons and half-baked psychological analysis gleaned from the Penguin Freud edition.

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Here's one way to analyze a sentence like this, by basically interrogating it.

A desire to throw over reality a light that never was is a subject clause. What desire? A desire to throw something. To throw what? A light that never was. To throw it where? Over reality.

might give way abruptly to It will give way to something, yield to something; or rather, it might give way to something. What is that something?

the desire on the part of what we might consider a novelist-scientist to record exactly and concretely the structure and texture of a flower. Another desire. What desire is that? To record the structure and texture of a flower. To record it how? Exactly and concretely. And who has that desire (the desire is "on the part of" whom)? Someone we might consider to be a novelist / scientist.

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The question of this topic is:

How to understand this statement.

Regarding the original statement,

A desire to throw over reality a light that never was might give way abruptly to the desire on the part of what we might consider a novelist-scientist to record exactly and concretely the structure and texture of a flower.

In current colloquial terms, I can bore you with details about something irrelevant, but ... Oh, look! A flower! Let's describe it in detail!

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OK, downvoted because you thought it was only a joke? But it is the translation in plain English. –  SrJoven Aug 2 at 10:51
    
darn 5 minute edit and bad editor... OK, downvoted because you thought it was only a joke? But it is a valid interpretation. Think about what the words say: throw over reality a light that never was = tell you about something irrelevant. Give way abruptly = as if (the joke about ADD), switch gears immediately. The rest is humorous, but on point: Oh, look! A flower! Let's describe it in detail! –  SrJoven Aug 2 at 10:58

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