A Close Reading (Annotated Paragraph)

This Island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the main land by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh-hen. The vegetation , as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the seacoast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle, so much prized by the horticulturists of England. The shrub here often attains the height of fifteen or twenty feet, and forms an almost impenetrable coppice, burthening the air with its fragrance.

A close reading of this excerpt of “The Gold-Bug”, presented very early in the story, reveals much in the way of Poe’s writing style as a whole. The paragraph is highly descriptive and deeply entangled in poetic language, chocked full of rhetorical devices, particularly metaphor and allusion. Containing entirely of language describing the setting, I chose this paragraph for analysis because I felt that there would be much to annotate, not realizing that it may not be the best piece of prose to really dig into the idea of literary meaning with.

Poe is a plot writer, focused highly on the idea of characters and action and describing the way these characters do these actions in a compelling way. There is tons of dialogue in this story, and yet none in this particular paragraph. This excerpt instead is a boxcar on a long train of exposition Poe employs in the story’s early paragraphs. This particular piece of exposition is included to tell the reader about the Island where the story is taking place, and it does just that, giving a beautifully constructed description of the story’s setting.

The narrator begins by saying “The Island is a very singular one.” There are many things to pick apart in this first sentence. First of all, he choses to capitalize the word “Island”. While unsure, I can speculate as to why he does this. My first guess is that maybe because the land will play such an important role in the story down the line, Poe capitalizes the word “Island” to, in a way, to qualify it as a character in its own right, and at the same time, to foreshadow this potential.

One can also assume that maybe the word is capitalized to show its importance as Legrand’s, the main character’s, home. Or possibly to understand this seemingly odd punctual choice one must look at the word “island” in a scientific way (like how much of the prose is themed), and assume that Poe, attempting to write like a scientist, capitalizes the word out of some sort of respect for the land.

Either way, one must make a decision and get past that eventually if they are going to critically analyze the entire paragraph. Three words later we come across our next conundrum, yet a mere dictionary search quickly solves that mystery. Poe uses the word “singular” to describe the island. A reader must realize Poe’s using the denotation of singular that means “peculiar or odd” instead of the one that means “by one’s self, alone.” However, with this word choice, Poe also alludes to the fact that Legrand is the only inhabitant on the island, and he would be nothing, if not for the company of his slave Jupiter, but a sharp-minded recluse.

Skipping over the relatively mundane next sentence, we come across the first of several words Poe uses that have since become archaic. Yet this distinction does not make them work any less wonderfully. “Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile”, the line reads, in regard to the island’s measurements. The word choice here with “breadth” not only tells the story of the island’s width, but at the same time gives the island a humanistic quality, must like capitalizing the word did in sentence one. As a reader, the word “breadth” sparks images of a person breathing, implying again that the island holds more importance than its outer surface of reeds and rocks suggest.

The narrator then begins going into detail, telling how the island is separated from the mainland by implementing striking imagery of a tiny creek “oozing” through “wilderness of reeds and slime”. It’s a startling picture, one that somewhat tarnishes an extremely natural occurrence by branding it with gloomy and almost ugly language. A mentioning of the “marsh-hen” at the end of the sentence is the second example of an outdated reference (this is no fault of Poe’s of course; these words were commonplace at the time of his writing). The allusion of the marsh-hen, a bird so secretive that it can flatten itself out to look like the reeds and is only seen when flushed, again gives the description of the island a detailed yet dirty feel. This is the land of ooze and slime, that harbors sneaky, up-to-no-good creatures. This is the picture Poe is painting, and it is appropriate given the further direction of the story.

He continues by telling of the island‘ peculiar lack of trees, especially tall ones. Never does the narrator say that this is a quality odd in an island, but the fact that it is mentioned at all alludes to this thinking. With the lack of tall trees noted, the narrator then explains the things that are tall on the island, a few “miserable frame buildings”, keeping consistent his negative depiction of the place. Even the metaphor at the end of the line explaining the vacationers who rent those buildings is a scornful one. The narrator seems angry at these people, but I’m not sure whether it’s because they live a city life or if its because they only reside near the “bristly palmetto” when venturing to the Island.

The following two lines round out the paragraph and the outline of the island’s topography. In these descriptions too, words are used to depict the place as one of negative feeling and appearance. “Hard” is used to describe the beach, “dense” is chosen to tell of the vegetation, which we eventually are told oozes an “impenetrable coppice” and “burthens the air with its fragrance.” In fact, the only aspect of the Island the Poe choses to depict in a positive light is the myrtle, which he calls “sweet”. Yet in amidst all this course language, the compliment merely sounds sarcastic.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the paragraph, from a literary sense at least, is that it is written in the present tense, when most of the story is written in the past. In fact, Poe switches tenses in the very next paragraph, as soon as physical human characters are brought into the prose. From a literary sense, one can speculate that Poe chooses to use past tense when describing events that have already happened, and present tense to tell of things that have not yet commenced. In this case, the Island is told of in the present tense because it has not only outlasted the characters, but the author and the story as well.

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