The Use of Sensory Description in Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia

Jane Porter 06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia presents the reader with a journey through a distant land, primarily illustrated by the author's countless encounters with individuals. Chatwin often shares the eccentric backgrounds of these people, vividly describing their appearances and behaviors. His meetings have a very limited trajectory, however, leading him to venture only further into the terrain and come across more individuals, rather than to form lasting relationships with these people. Thus his portrayal of events takes on an ephemeral quality, which is successfully conceived by packing his prose with extensive sensory details. We are given brief sketches of individuals and although Chatwin's encounters often do not lead to resolutions, the rich description packed into his prose, provides us with a satisfactory glimpse into these people's lives. Thus, Chatwin compensates for a lack of resolution by overemphasisizing detail, as is seen specifically in his description of a French woman whose home he stumbles upon:

She was waiting for me, a white face behind a dusty window. She smiled, her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark-auburn. Her legs were a Mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had the tatters of an extraordinary beauty.

She had been making pastry and the grey dough clung to her hands. Her blood-red nails were cracked and chipped.

"J'aime bien la cuisine," she said. "C'est une des seules choses que je peux faire maintenant."

Her French was halting and slow. Her face lit up as she remembered the idioms of her childhood. She took up a coloured photograph of her city and began to recall the names of quays, streets, parks, fountains, and avenues. Together we strolled around pre-war Geneva. [pp.61-62]

Chatwin's use of such sensory description is important in justifying why his retelling of particular encounters often seems to be cut short. The reader is engaged with visual descriptions like, "her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze," and the image of her legs as "a Mesopotamia of varicose veins." We also get a sense of texture with words such as "clung," "cracked," and "chipped." Chatwin introduces the element of sound as well, capturing the woman's voice in French and describing it as "halting and slow." Thus, the reader's various senses are engaged while reading. Although Chatwin's encounter with this woman spans over only a page and a half, such active description has an exhausting effect on the reader so that by the end of the passage, we are ready to move on, not because we feel the encounter has a clear resolution but because we need a break from the highly engaging prose.


When discussing the origins of the name "Patagonia" and the legend of the Patagon, Chatwin makes reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest, incorporating direct quotes from the play in his prose. Why does Chatwin make this abrupt shift in tone by including this excerpt from Shakespeare? What purpose do such interjections of outside texts serve in Chatwin's writing? How does his use of quotes differ from that of sage writers such as Montaigne?

Does Chatwin have an argument throughout his text, or is this simply a traveler's experiences retold in detail? What could be a possible argument found in his writing?

Does Chatwin use ethos or pathos in creating his narrative voice? Are we made more aware of Chatwin's authority as an observer or of his personal feelings towards that which he encounters?

In Patagonia is composed of 97 sections, all relatively short in length. Chatwin often ends some sections abruptly or with the use of a colon to segue the reader into the next section of the text. Why does Chatwin divide his text in this way? What different effect would the prose have if they were organized in larger chapters rather than by often ending with unfinished clauses?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 17 November 2003