Stylistic Analysis of the novel “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson
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A Walk in the Woods essayIn the novel A Walk in the Woods, the author Bill Bryson entertains the reader with a humorous, yet authentically personal account of his expedition along the Appalachian Trail. He carries you along through the beautiful sceneries, endless discomforts, overwhelming joys, and infinite frustrations with an honest commentary, complete only with his colorful splash of impeccable irony. The book, as well as chronicling his individual journey, also educates the reader on various topics ranging from the National Parks Service, to tales of various AT celebrities and obscurities, to the varying aggressiveness of bears according to the particular species. However, out of the many subjects that Bryson discusses, I would mainly like to focus on two: His own experience with hiking the trail and America’s increasing de-appreciation for the wonders of nature. I will be looking at how the styles in which he presents these issues change or do not change throughout the book.
When the book begins, Bryson is nothing more than a naïve and inexperienced hiker with a dream to traverse the 2,600-mile AT. As the trip unfolds, his feelings towards the physical challenge of actually lugging himself across the vertical axis of the U.S. fluctuate. He experiences hiking from many legitimate perspectives: as purely a workout, as an accomplishment, and as a lovable yet loathable spouse. At first it seems like labor, “The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill… Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long” (Bryson, 50). In this passage he clearly illustrates the despair of the seemingly eternal path with the clever use of repetition and exaggeration. The repetition drives his point home by hammering the concept into your head and combined with the overemphasis, he makes sure that you feel what he felt.
As he gets into the rhythm of walking, he starts to feel refreshed and more competent. “So I was happy. We were doing fifteen or sixteen miles a day, nothing like the twenty-five miles we had been promised we would do, but still a perfectly respectable distance by our lights. I felt springy and fit and for the first time in years had a stomach that didn’t look like a ball bag. I was still weary and stiff at the end of the day -that never stopped- but I had reached the point where aches and blisters were so central a feature of my existence that I ceased to notice them” (Bryson, 178). His narration almost seems to pick up speed as if it suddenly became much lighter. The introduction sentence, “So I was happy” sets the tone of the passage, and phrases such as, “respectable distance,” “springy and fit,” and “ceased to notice them” support this premise. He refers to the hardships and pain involved, yet accepts them as merely a part of the package. This strengthens his tone by showing that not only is he enjoying the pros of hiking, but also embracing the cons. He is now able to see the rewards of what he earlier despised with a passion.
After moving on from hating the process of hiking to rather enjoying it, he finally settles at a middle ground. “I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the AT that weren’t confused and contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but still strangely in its thrall; found the endless slog tedious but irresistible; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts. I wanted to quit and do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again” (Bryson, 389). This third passage blends the tones of the first two in a completely contradictory, yet somehow understandable, fashion. He wants to never hike again but spend the rest of his days hiking. This quote would not make any sense if the reader had seen only this passage and not the rest of the book. It ties together the mix of feeling that he expresses throughout the novel. He has already explained both perspectives of loving the trail and hating it, now he is simply combining both of them into one, synchronized stance.
Bryson’s perspective on walking the trail fluctuates from negative, to positive, to a dualistic combination, providing a variety of tone on a single subject. However, not all of the topics on which he talks about, does he change his stance. Another continuous theme discussed all through the book is the growing supremacy of man over nature. His irritation towards this unfortunate reality seems to stay constant, yet he expresses it some different stylistic ways. First he looks at the irony of the Forest Service, “The Forest Service is a truly extraordinary institution. A lot of people, seeing the word forest in the title, assume it has something to do with looking after trees. In fact, no -though that was the original plan” (Bryson, 66).
He comments humorously on how the name of the organization has little to do with its actual doings. Second, he attacks the issue with a snarky, cynical attitude, “Everywhere you look in the eastern forests, trees are dying in colossal numbers. In the Smokies, over 90 percent of Fraser firs -a noble tree, unique to the southern Appalachian highlands- are sick or dying, from a combination of acid rain and the depredations of a moth called the balsam woolly adelgid. Ask any park official what they are doing about it and he will say, ‘We are monitoring the situation closely.’ For this, read: ‘We are watching them die” (Bryson, 132). His bold accusations affirm his stance on the matter. The phrases “Dying in colossal numbers”, “Sick or dying”, and “Watching them die”, definitely set a dark tone. His last statement, “For this read: ‘We are watching them die” really packs a punch because it is the only subjective comment it the entire passage. He first backs his opinion up with fact before delivering the deathblow, this gives it more power when it hits.
One of his last comments on the matter may seem to be a very mild one, but in many ways is the most effective. It emphasizes that the power of civilization is matching the power of nature. “There may be more demanding and exciting summits to reach along the Appalachian Trail than Mount Washington but none can be more startling. You labor up the last steep stretch of rocky slope to what is after all a considerable eminence and pop your head over the edge, and there you are greeted by, of all things, a vast, terraced parking lot, full of automobiles gleaming hotly in the sun” (Bryson, 331). Another representation of Bryson’s irony is given here, toned with surprise, and absent of much personal elucidation. The minimalism gives the passage a casual feel, yet also leaves some mystery as to the authors feelings on the event.
Even from just considering these two topics, a wide variety of stylistic components were utilized to reach every one of his desired effects. But a constant correspondence linking each passage is a distinct voice full of life and honest personality that places the reader right alongside Bryson and Katz as they face the challenges and joys of walking the AT.
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. New York: Anchor Books, 2007