Some of the best scenes in literature:
1. The Idiot - mock execution
2. Macbeth - Act 5; Scene 5 - Macbeth's world is crashing around
him when he hears of his wife's death. He remarks, laconically, "She
should have died hereafter," and then delivers what might be the most perfect lines in literature:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
...Nowhere in literature is despair and futility communicated better.
3. Invisible Man - Liberty Paints Factory or battle royal
4. Flannery O'Connor - too many to list
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Janie telling Joe Starks, "When
you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh
The few examples above come from "Tier One" literature. While this sounds hierarchical, I guess I do view books in general categories. For example, though Mary Doria Russell is an excellent writer, she doesn't make my Tier One list. And, I'm no elitist, but I'd be willing to bet most of us have some sort of invisible line that separates truly great literature from the rest. Then, there is schlocky literature and those books - like Glenn Beck's recent foray into literature (and I'd rather check out Hell for a few days or rip my face off than read The Overton Window
) - that are beneath contempt.
However, in Tier Two literature (very good but not great), Russell's scene between Werner Schramm, an SS deserter, and Father Osvaldo Tomitz, an Italian priest, is absolutely unforgettable. Schramm has been dogging Osvaldo for some time, hoping to have him hear his confession. [If you consider this excerpt a spoiler, don't read it.:] Osvaldo wants nothing to do with Schramm, but Schramm persists and starts by asking Osvaldo a number of questions concerning faith, and then begins his confession:
"A priest's office is to instruct the faithful!" Schramm shouts. [Osvaldo is disgusted but resigns himself to hearing the confession.:] ...
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, he says when he can speak again. "I have murdered 91,867 people."
Osvaldo laughs. You're joking, this laugh says. You can't be serious! "Ninety-one thousand," he repeats. "Eight hundred..."
"And sixty-seven. Yes."
The number is absurd, but Schramm does not laugh. [Schramm tries to makes excuses, to clarify the situation, but Osvaldo cannot comprehend; it is beyond belief.:]
Osvaldo looks at Schramm, at the goat, at the diamond studded-sea in the distance. Mind racing, he tries to imagine what he can possibly say to this...this demon. His mouth opens. No words emerge. He lifts his hands, drops them, and begins to walk over.
"Wait!" Schramm calls. "You must-- What is my penance?"
Osvaldo turns and stares. "Mein Gott, Schramm, what did you expect? Rosaries?" Bending suddenly, leaning hard on hands that clutch his knees, Osvaldo chokes back vomit. Trembling, he lifts his eyes. "Shoot yourself."
I've eliminated both parts of this scene and its ending. It has to be read in its entirety.
The book's title is perfect, for grace does thread its way through this book. Though the plight of the Italian resistance, Jewish refugees and many others in this book prompt situations that are wrenching, the book is uplifting as well.
A poignant and memorable read.