When you think of the elements of a good piece of fiction you may consider character, plot, tone, metaphor and symbolism, etc. I would like to introduce another necessary element in literary fiction; I call it “moments of sheer radiance.”
A moment of sheer radiance strikes the essence of the prose and comes as close to poetry as prose permits. In my own collection of books I underline or highlight these passages, these fundamental truths of humanity where a passage is written so well it spans the obstacle of our separateness and joins us to the rest of the human race. Something within us says “Yes, I know this.” It is recognition. We read through moments of sheer radiance and pause in awe and appreciation at how the writer has captured something whole, perhaps mystical, artfully turning it into words and leaving the surface of the earth for a few moments. Examples of moments of sheer radiance follow:
1. James Joyce, A Portrat of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 339
A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird...Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!
This particular moment is a famous one in the world of literature, so famous Joyce has coined his own term: epiphany. Here the hero Stephan Dedalus has the realization that he seeks not the world of piety and priesthood but the creative, fallible, ephemeral world of the artist.
2. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
I sat down on the grass, which was stiff with the cold, and I put my hands over my face, and I let my skin tighten, and let the chills run in ripples, like breezy water between my shoulder blades and up my neck. I let the numbing grass touch my ankles. I thought, Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone, and I would rather be with them, if only to see them, even if they turned away from me. If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.
Here the protagonist Ruth grieves her mother's death and also discloses her frustration with her eccentric Aunt Sylvie who abandons her on a regular basis. Robinson succeeds in making a moment of grief in her character Ruth's life one of illumination and hope.
3. Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education
Then he went to bed, with an unbearable pain in the back of his head; and he drank a decanter of water to quench his thirst.
Another thirst had come upon him: the thirst for women, for luxury, for everything that life in Paris implies. He felt slightly dazed, like a man disembarking from a ship; and in the hallucination of his first sleep he saw passing to and fro before him the Fishwife's shoulders, the Stevedore's back, the Polish girl's calves, and the Savage Woman's hair. Then two large dark eyes, which had not been at the ball, appeared; and, light as butterflies, bright as torches, they darted here and there, quivered, flew up to the ceiling, then swooped down to his lips. Frederic struggled to recognize these eyes, without success. But already a dream had taken hold of him; he tought he was harnessed side of by side with Arnoux in the shafts of a cab, and the Marshal, sitting astride him, was tearing him open with her golden spurs.
This surreal episode happens after the character Frederic attends a fancy ball with his friend Jacques Arnoux. Frederic is in love with Arnoux's wife, unbeknownst to Arnoux himself. Arnoux has taken Frederic to a fancy ball party hosted by his mistress Rosanette Bron, who, dressed as a marshal in the French military with gold spurs on her boots, figures prominently at the close of the dream. Why is this a moment of sheer radiance? The imagery, the poetry, the symbolism. Until this point, Frederic has only loved Madam Arnoux, has been faithful to her, despite his secrecy of his affections; it is her disembodied dark eyes that swoop down to his lips. The eyes are a symbol of Frederic's own guilt for having lustful feelings for other women, namely Rosanette who ultimately becomes his lover. “Tearing him open with her golden spurs” is intense and portrays the type of woman Rosanette is, bold, fearless.
In these three passages we have witnessed Stephen Dedalus learn his calling, Ruth realize how her mother could never truly be dead to her, and Frederic recognize his lust and how it differs from admiration and love. What do all of these moments have in common? A distillate of emotion. The moment reaches down into the essence of the character and brings out something new, something learned, something mystical, something marvelous.