or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 7/31/11

   August 6th, 2011

The Outsiders, by S. E. HintonWhen I came into work one day, I was told that three people were already working on this question and no one could find an answer - we still don't have anything conclusive, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.

A student from a private school a few towns over came in to start her summer reading project. One of the books she has to read is S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and in addition to the typical "read and describe" work, this student's assignment also said,

...after you finished reading the book, answer the following questions. If you need help, ask the librarian at your public library for assistance.

  1. The Outsiders begins and ends with the same sentence - does this technique have a name, and if so, what is it?
  2. ...

First of all, it's great that the assignment encourages the students to seek out librarians for help - although bad in this case that we're failing her. Second, I dislike the "does this have a name, and if so, what is it?" - it makes me feel like we're not finding an answer because there isn't an answer, but I don't want to give up looking.

Anyway, of course the first thing I did was grab a copy of The Outsiders to check out the sentences (copy/pasted here courtesy of LibraryThing's Common Knowledge)
First sentence:

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

Last Sentence:

And I finally began like this: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home...

After describing the question to me, my coworker said that they had consulted every literary dictionary and reference book in the library, and also any literary terms website they could find - but hadn't been able to find anything.

My first thought was to try the Descriptionary, which is perfectly designed for this type of question. It's a dictionary that lists information by description, rather than by word, so it lets you look something up by what it is and the book tells you what it's called. However, in this case none of the descriptions matched a story beginning and ending with the same sentence, so no luck there.

My next thought was to ask one of our library volunteers - when she's not volunteering for the library, she's a Professor of Literature in the English Department of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. If anyone would know this, she must.

Later that day I spoke to her and explained the question, and she said she had no idea. She felt that if there was a term for it, it would be a term of rhetoric, so I should search those instead of just literary terms. She also said she'd ask around the department and let me know if any of her colleagues knew.

I searched online for rhetoric terms, and found quite a few glossaries, and although many terms were extremely close, none were exactly right.

Later I heard back from the volunteer - she said that no one she spoke with could identify it, and the only suggestion anyone had, however dubious, was "circular construction." That sounds good on its face, but I couldn't find it listed in any of the glossaries I consulted.

Frustrating. This all happened on Thursday and Friday, and I haven't yet contacted the patron with an answer. So if anyone knows, please comment.


Ouroboros - snake eating its tailI read The Outsiders when I was young and don't really remember it, so I was interested to learn about this first/last sentence trick in the book. The book ends with a student being assigned a writing project, and he begins his assignment by writing the first sentence of the novel. This leads to the conclusion that the novel itself was the student's assignment, which is fun because it blends reality with fiction, and turns the story into a sort of mobius strip of plot.

It also reminded me of the imagery of the snake eating its tail - which got me wondering if there is a term for that symbol. It turns out there is: Ouroboros. When I do call this student back on Monday, she'll have all kinds of paths to follow.

Update 8/26/11:
After getting comments on this post, I spoke with the patron by phone, and emailed her a few links. A couple weeks later, she emailed me back:

Thanks for the answer and all the hard work everyone did. I just e-mailed my teacher about the summer assignment and she said circular structure is the correct answer.


That's great - thanks for helping, everyone.

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12 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 7/31/11”

  1. M. Ogle Says:

    This was all that I found on the subject: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/BookEnds/Literature

  2. AnniA Says:

    It’s very close to the definition of the word, antistrophe. Your patron might check the University of Kentucky’s “A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples” http://www.uky.edu/AS/Classics/rhetoric.html#4

    What a challenge!

  3. hldavids Says:

    I remember discussing this construction in Freshman (high school) English – and I believe our instructor also simply referred to it as circular construction. Unfortunately I do not find any authoritative sites using this term – the Finnegans Wake wiki entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnegans_Wake) says instead cyclical in nature. We also used the term parallelism in high school – which is how this construction is referred to on the following page: http://www.writing-lovers.com/parallelism-in-prose.html.

  4. Dan Curry Says:

    There is an element in Greek literature called the “inclusio.” This isn’t quite the same as what you’ve described. Basically, to frame a historical passage in such a way as to indicate the main eyewitness(es) of the passage, the eyewitnesses are mentioned at the beginning of the passage and the end, sometimes in vague ways.

    Which makes me think that you might want to venture into Greek literary devices for an answer.


  5. Teaspoon Says:

    The literary term for the identical opening and closing is “framing” or “framing device.”


    See also “frame narrative.”


    See also “framing method.”


    These aren’t the most authoritative resources, obviously, but hopefully it will help you look it up in something of higher quality.

  6. Adam Steele Says:

    I’m going to agree with M. Ogle and say that the teacher was thinking about “Book Ending.” Though it’s usually only associated with film, I suppose it’s still the same thing in a book.


  7. Mary Jo Says:

    From a literary term list produced by Carson-Newman College (TN):

    FRAMING METHOD: Using the same features, wording, setting, situation, or topic at both the beginning and end of a literary work so as to “frame” it or “enclose it.” This technique often provides a sense of cyclical completeness or closure.


  8. Amanda Says:

    Out of all the terms and words I’ve seen so far, Mary Jo’s sounds perfect. Especially if you look at the literary purpose of having the same beginning and end sentences in the book:

    “Hinton’s act of ending the novel by circling back to its beginning provides a balanced symmetry to the story’s structure. More important, however, Ponyboy’s ability to tie the story up so neatly shows that he has dealt with these traumatic events in a healthy way.”


    What’s kind of great about the teacher’s question is that it is relatively open-ended. The student can actually answer it as “The closest term I could find is x.”

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    Thank you everyone – this is exactly what I was hoping for. I don’t often crowd-source reference questions, but it’s nice to know it produces results so quickly.

    In reading through the terms on the link submitted by @Mary Jo, it looks like Circular Structure is exactly what this patron is looking for. But it’s also fun that this question is so open-ended and the student has so many options to work with – bookended it interesting too. Thanks again!

  10. silvia Says:


  11. claritza Says:

    As a teacher, it bugs me when other teachers give students questions that require this much effort from this many adults/professionals to answer. “Does this question have a name, and if so, what is it?” is a poorly written question.

  12. Allison Says:

    I really enjoyed this post! In poetry, a work created in this style is called a pantoum.