Montage and Transitions in McPhee

Eric Sedgwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In John McPhee's prose, we are often much less aware of the author's voice than in the works of other sage or travel writers. His sparse, often minimalist style tends towards subtle, implied points rather than overt rhetorical assertions or comparisons. One of his methods of influencing his readers, however, is his use of montage, the order in which he pieces together his impression of Colonsay from several individual scenes or vignettes. Often it is in the transition from one passage to the next rather than in the passages themselves that meaning is located. In one particularly startling transition in The Crofter and the Laird, McPhee moves immediately from a description of religious life on the island to a passage about the violence of nature:

Last year, the minister performed a wedding, and he took pictures at the reception and sold them to the conjoined families. He is slow to baptize, not being ready to baptize just anyone. He says, "Baptism is a shell, unless the parents are going to take spiritual command. Then you have the yolk inside."

Donald Gibbie kills a gull and tacks its white body, smeared with blood, to a fence post on the croft, as a warning to other gulls to stay away from the flocks. When sheep are lambing, there is a moment of danger just after the lambs are born. The ewes are too weak to get up and protect the young. At these times, gulls or crows will sometimes swoop down and peck out the eyes of lambs (91).

This second paragraph is quite long, but notice how it ends, two pages later, with an echo of the egg yolk and shell comparison that ended the preceding paragraph:

Three [eggs] stood on end. I poked small holes in them and blew out the interiors, so that I could give the handsome shells to my children. The two others were good to the yolk. Those we would crack and fly. [93]

What is implied by this direct transition from a minister's attitudes on baptism to Donald Gibbie's means of protecting his lambs from the attacks of gulls? How might each paragraph influence your reading of the other?

Why does McPhee move from the metaphor of the egg to its material equivalent? Is this purely a transitional device or does it carry deeper meaning?

Does the subtlety of montage as a technique work to its advantage in this book? Does the author generate greater credibility by using this method?

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April 2002