What follows is an example of how to use a comma. The extracts come from the short story, Here We Are, written by the mildly poisonous Dorothy Parker and published in 1931. Miss Parker can be forgiven most of her poison because it seems to have been caused by sadness rather than hate, but not all of it because she seemed to enjoy making use of it. The best people are usually complicated.
The story is just shy of hilarious. A newly-wed couple is approaching New York for their honeymoon, and – this was written in the thirties, remember – they don’t know each other as well as a couple nowadays might. The poor fellow seems terribly pre-occupied with how they will spend their evening. He attempts to broach the subject of their wedding-night without wanting to mention it directly. And very-well his new wife knows it.
Parker allows but ten lines of dialogue before the bitterness sets in. Perhaps her view of marriage was less romantic than most. On the question of how long they have been married, she tells us that
“The young man studied his wrist-watch as if he were just acquiring the knack of reading time.
“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty six minutes.”
“My,” she said. “It seems like longer.”
“No,” he said. “It isn’t hardly half-past six yet.”
“It seems like later,” she said. “I guess it’s because it starts getting dark so early.”
“It does, at that,” he said. “The nights are going to be pretty long from now on. I mean. I mean – well, it starts getting dark early.””
That, I submit, is superb. It comes early on. Parker gives you her worldview wrapped up in ironic dialogue with both characters talking about different things. We can smirk a little at her talk of being married for a time which “seems longer” – suggesting that her husband’s preoccupation is boring her; and shake our heads in comic despair at her preoccupied husband, who reveals what’s on his mind by missing her point completely. His interest is long nights of getting-to-know-you-time. Notice Parker has him correct himself at the end, lest his wife catches on.
She has already caught on and she makes him suffer.
Boy, does she make him suffer.
The poor fool makes one innocent remark about a female guest looking rather handsome and his new wife tortures him across the remaining pages. She drives him almost to the brink of insanity and she does it while pretending she has no idea what she’s doing or what he’s going through.
One of the ways Parker has him tortured is through the perfect use of a comma.
The husband attempts to hit back by mentioning his wife’s male friend, Joe Brooks.
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s fond of you. He was so fond of you he didn’t even send a wedding present. That’s how fond of you he was.”
“I happen to know for a fact,” she said, “that he was away on business, and as soon as he comes back he’s going to give me anything I want, for the apartment.”
That final comma is so sharp it could draw blood.
Funny thing is, she’s only just getting warmed up.