Prose

Definition of Prose

Prose is a literary device referring to writing that is structured in a grammatical way, with words and phrases that build sentences and paragraphs. Works written in prose feature language that flows in natural patterns of everyday speech. Prose is the most common and popular form of writing in fiction and non-fiction works.

As a literary device, prose is a way for writers to communicate with readers in a straightforward, even conversational manner and tone. This creates a level of familiarity that allows the reader to connect with the writer’s expression, narrative, and characters. An example of the effective familiarity of prose is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

Salinger’s prose is presented as first-person narration, as if Holden Caulfield’s character is speaking to and conversing directly with the reader. This style of prose establishes a familiarity and intimacy between the narrator and the reader that maintains its connection throughout the novel.

Common Examples of First Prose Lines in Well-Known Novels

The first prose line of a novel is significant for the writer and reader. This opening allows the writer to grab the attention of the reader, set the tone and style of the work, and establish elements of setting, character, point of view, and/or plot. For the reader, the first prose line of a novel can be memorable and inspire them to continue reading. Here are some common examples of first prose lines in well-known novels:

  • Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice)
  • It was love at first sight. (catch 22)
  • In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (The Great Gatsby)
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984)
  • i am an invisible man. (Invisible Man)
  • Mother died today. (the stranger)
  • They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time. (Paradise)
  • All this happened, more or less. (Slaughterhouse-Five)

Examples of Famous Lines of Prose

Prose is a powerful literary device in that certain lines in literary works can have great effect on readers in revealing human truths or resonating as art through language. Well-crafted, memorable prose evokes thought and feeling in readers. Here are some examples of famous lines of prose:

  • Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. (To Kill a Mockingbird)
  • In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart. (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl)
  • All Animals are Equal, but some animals are more equal than others. (Animal Farm)
  • It is easier to start a war than to end it. (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both. (Charlotte’s Web)
  • I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. (The Color Purple)
  • There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you, (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
  • The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  • The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you. (The Book Thief)
  • Just remember: If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity. (In Cold Blood)

Types of Prose

Writers use different types of prose as a literary device depending on the style and purpose of their work. Here are the different types of prose:

  • Nonfiction: prose that recounts a true story, provides information, or gives a factual account of something (such as manuals, newspaper articles, textbooks, etc.)
  • Heroic: prose usually in the form of a legend or fable that is intended to be recited and has been passed down through oral or written tradition
  • Fiction: most familiar form of prose used in novels and short stories and featuring elements such as plot, setting, characters, dialogue, etc.
  • Poetic Prose: poetry written in the form of prose, creating a literary hybrid with occasional rhythm and/or rhyme patterns

Difference Between Prose and Poetry

Many people consider prose and poetry to be opposites as literary devices. While that’s not quite the case, there are significant differences between them. Prose typically features natural patterns of speech and communication with grammatical structure in the form of sentences and paragraphs that continue across the lines of a page rather than breaking. In most instances, prose features everyday language.

Poetry, traditionally, features intentional and deliberate patterns, usually in the form of rhythm and rhyme. Many poems also feature a metrical structure in which patterns of beats repeat themselves. In addition, poetry often includes elevated, figurative language rather than everyday verbiage. Unlike prose, poems typically include line breaks and are not presented as or formed into continuous sentences or paragraphs.

Examples of Prose in Literature

Prose is an essential literary device in literature, and the foundation for storytelling. The prose in literary works functions to convey ideas, present information, and create a narrative for the reader through the intricate combinations of plot, conflict, characters, setting, and resolution. Here are some examples of prose in literature:

Example 1: The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.

Steinbeck’s gifted prose in this novel is evident in this passage as he describes the last moment of sunset and the onset of darkness. Steinbeck demonstrates the manner in which a writer can incorporate figurative language into a prose passage without undermining the effect of being straightforward with the reader. The novel’s narrator utilizes figurative language by creating a metaphor comparing the sun to a drop of liquid, as well as through personifying dusk and darkness as they “crept.” This enhances the novel’s setting, tone, and mood in this portion of the story.

However, though Steinbeck incorporates such imagery and poetic phrasing in this descriptive passage, the writing is still accessible to the reader in terms of prose. This demonstrates the value of this literary device in fictional works of literature. Writers can still master and offer everyday language and natural speech patterns without compromising or leaving out effective description and use of figurative language for readers.

Example 2: This Is Just to Say (William Carlos Williams)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
In this poem by Williams, he utilizes poetic prose to create a hybrid work of literature. The poem is structured in appearance like a poetic work with line breaks and stanzas. However, the wording of the work flows as prose writing in its everyday language and conversational tone. There is an absence of figurative language in the poem, and instead the expression is direct and straightforward.
By incorporating prose as a literary device in his poem, Williams creates an interesting tension for the reader between the work’s visual representation as a poem and the familiar, literal language making up each individual line. However, rather than undermine the literary beauty of the poem, the prose wording enhances its meaning and impact.

Example 3: Harrison Bergeron (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This passage introduces Vonnegut’s work of short fiction. The narrator’s prose immediately sets the tone of the story as well as foreshadows the impending conflict. The certainty and finality of the narrator’s statements regarding equality in the story establish a voice that is direct and unequivocal. This unambiguous voice set forth by Vonnegut encourages trust in the narration on behalf of the reader. As a result, when the events and conflict in the story turn to science fiction, and even defy the laws of physics, the reader continues to “believe” the narrator’s depiction of the plot and characters.

This suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader demonstrates the power of prose as a literary device and method of storytelling. By utilizing the direct and straightforward nature of prose, the writer invites the reader to become a participant in the story by accepting what they are told and presented through the narrator. This enhances the connection between the writer as a storyteller and a receptive reader.