I don't understand how the two semicolons are being used in the following sentence from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man:

And I stand as for an answer and see in my mind's eye the cabins surrounded by empty fields beyond red clay roads, and beyond a certain river, sluggish and covered with algae more yellow than green in its stagnant stillness; past more empty fields to the sun-shrunk shacks at the railroad crossing where the disabled veterans visited the whores, hobbling down the tracks on crutches and canes; sometimes pushing the legless, thigh-less one in a wheelchair.

The semicolons aren't separating independent clauses and they aren't separating different elements of a list. Are they being used as a sort of "super comma" to string together different dependent clauses?

  • Interesting question. The semicolons here seem to be operating at different levels. The first seems to further a primary-level parallel construction: "and see in my mind's eye the cabins ... and beyond a certain river ... [and] past [that] more empty fields ..." But the second one seems to extend a subordinate extension of the sentence into a second parallel structure: "disabled veterans hobbling down the tracks ... [and] sometimes pushing the legless, thighless one ..." To me, the effect is dreamlike—a memory that keeps unexpectedly discovering new elements as it roves the remembered scene.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 19 '16 at 19:58

Punctuation is a stylistic aid to guide the reader to the correct parse of linear text. In the hands of a master, it can also guide a reader to the vision that the author intends to convey. Let's start out by listing what Ellison's narrator sees:

  • cabins
  • empty fields
  • red clay roads
  • a river
  • yellow algae
  • more empty fields
  • shacks
  • a railroad crossing
  • disabled veterans
  • tracks
  • a legless man in a wheelchair

In the hands of an untalented author, this list of viewed objects could simply be spilled out, each separated from the next by a comma. But that's not what Ellison does. First he gathers three initial sights:

  1. cabins
  2. beyond the river to the shacks
  3. past more empty fields

(Notice that 1 is a direct object, while 2 and 3 are prepositional phrases, which give a sweep to the narrator's vision.) Secondly, he places the other images mostly as adjuncts or parts of adjuncts (i.e., modifiers) to the three:

  1. cabins surrounded by empty fields
  2. beyond the river, sluggish ... covered by algae
  3. past more empty fields to the ... shacks at the railroad crossing where the ... veterans visited ..., hobbling down the tracks

This is still a list, but the second has an internal comma (between river and sluggish), so it would be misleading for a comma to separate 1. beyond the river, and 2. past more empty fields: a reader might expect another phrase or clause modifying river. So a semicolon stands in stead to separate the second sight from the third.

Now we come to the last element, the gerund clause

sometimes pushing the legless, thigh-less one in a wheelchair.

Grammatically, this is a nominative absolute, a participial clause loosely connected syntactically to its associated clause

veterans visited the whores

describing both the subject (the veterans) and the predicate (their visiting) by giving the manner of their action. Ordinarily a comma separates an absolute from its associated clause, but Ellison further loosens the attachment with a semicolon, stylistically making it part of the preceding list and suggesting that it's the final, fourth sight in the narrator's vista.

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