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She listens to her great-uncle’s footfalls across the ceiling, and his voice—310 1467 507 2222 576881—and then her grandfather’s song, “Clair de Lune,” strains over her like a blue mist.

From All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Does 'strain' here mean 'ooze'?

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  • What's with the random chunk of numbers? Is this actually part of the quote? Also, see the music-related definition of strain.
    – Catija
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 4:08
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    The random chunk of numbers are secret codes the great uncle passes onto allies using a radio transmitter. After the radio transmission, he plays a record of classic music for a minute.
    – whitecap
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 4:21
  • @Varun KN are you saying 'strain' here is a noun? I thought in the sentence 'Her grandfather’s song strains over her like a blue mist.', 'strain' acts as a verb.
    – whitecap
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 6:20

4 Answers 4

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The short answer is that the author uses strain as a verb here, with the meaning plays or sounds.

There's a long history of the noun and verb forms borrowing from each other. And there are many many words in English that are both nouns and verbs. There is an obsolete verb meaning that refers to playing an instrument or singing a song. Here the verb is intransitive. EDIT: please see my note at the end of the answer, regarding the obsolete verb strain.

The noun strain can refer to

A strain is also a particular sound:

Strains of piano music drifted across the room.

Cambridge

Note the example sentence of Cambridge refers to the strains (sound) of piano music. Compare this to a definition in Oxford:

The sound of a piece of music.

So, simply put, the author uses the noun strain as a verb and applies this to the piano music (which is what Debussy's "Clare du Lune" is) that the blind Marie hears in the room over her. the

The author could have written

...and then her grandfather’s song, “Clair de Lune,” plays or sounds over her like a blue mist.

This 'over' could be strictly literal, since the gramophone is in the room (I think it's actually the attic or garret) over or above her grandfather’s bedroom.

'Over' could also be used metaphorically, similar to The music washed over me; here it is like a blue mist.

Why a blue mist? Debussy's "Clare du Lune" is a very evocative piano piece, one that is true art, in that it causes a lot of responses in most people who listen to it. Hear it at, among others, this recording and read some of the many among 9000+ comments about 'what the song evokes in or to me'. One thing the song can evoke is the image of a blue mist.

"Clare du Lune" means, in French, "moonlight", and that word alone can call up images of light through a dark blue sky; you simply have to add some mist to get some blue mist.

A search of the available text to the novel on Google Books shows us that this is the third or fourth mention of the song "Clare du Lune" in the novel.

Besides the connection with the song's meaning of "moonlight" with the book's title, it's also important to note that the author tries hard to use descriptive language, including verbs, when describing the strains (sound) of this evocative piano piece. Elsewhere in the novel he talks about the piece thusly:

a song that makes her think of leaves fluttering and of the hard ribbons of sand beneath her feet at low tide. The music slinks and rises and settles back to earth.

Note that mist might also be thought to slink and rise and settle back to earth.

And also

Chords float past in transparent riffles.

So with

...and then her grandfather’s song, “Clair de Lune,” strains over her like a blue mist.

the author's just using a noun as a verb to describe the sound that the piano makes 'over her'. Or he's using an obsolete sense of strain. But even this obsolete usage displays a close connection between the noun and verb forms.


As mentioned by Damkerng there is the obsolete meaning of strain as a verb to refer to singing or the playing of an instrument. But obsolete means "no longer used." So either the author decided to employ this obsolete usage or he used the modern noun in a creative he way as a verb. I imagine that 99% of contemporary native speakers are unfamiliar with this obsolete usage. (That's why it's marked as obsolete in the Oxford English Dictionary or OED.)

There are many many words in English that are both nouns and verbs, so it's not surprising that there is an obsolete version of strain to refer to the sounding/playing of an instrument, including the human voice. Also, the OED hints that even the obsolete meaning probably was influenced by the noun forms.

To me, strains as a verb would work much better with violin music, since (a) the strings of a violin produce actual physical strain or tension on the violin; and (b) the unique sound of violin music is often referred to as strains. I just don't see "strain" working very well with piano music, especially one that, to me, is pretty free of strain (in the sense of tension or something that puts a constraint on people). And to say that something strains over someone like a mist is, in my opinion, not the greatest simile.

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    I just found this obsolete sense of strain, the verb, in OED1: V. 22. a. trans. To use (the voice) in song ; to play upon (an instrument). b. To utter in song. c. intr. To sing. Obs. Commented May 13, 2016 at 13:02
  • That doesn't surprise me at all @DamkerngT, although I don't see it in my online OED. I still say it works better for a violin. And who knows whether the author knew of this old usage or got a bit creative. Commented May 13, 2016 at 14:13
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    But it was a surprise to me! See, I was trying to find a sense of strain that's close to the use in the book, and when I found one, your answer just came in and it's good and all! So I couldn't do anything but post the definition in my short comment and upvote your answer! :-) Commented May 13, 2016 at 14:16
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The key may be in the name "Clair de Lune", French for "light of the moon". This is a name of several songs, poems and classical music pieces, and notably Claude Debussy's piece which the book refers to. The "blue mist" simile is clearly related to this name.

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, one of the meanings of "strain" is "tune, air, a passage of verbal or musical expression". This meaning of "strain" is a noun, not a verb, but writers often apply "poetic license" and use words in uncommon ways.

Another meaning is, as other answers noted, related to pouring and filtering, which (understandably) reminds you of oozing and engulfing. The author could have used "pours" instead of "strains", but that wouldn't have that hint of music, and would be much less "magical".

This looks like an intentional (and clever) word-play by the author, who uses the multiple meanings of one word to induce a certain "fairy-like" and musical air, beyond the straightforward interpretation of the text.

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  • The novel identifies this "Clare du Lune" as Debussy's. Commented May 13, 2016 at 17:08
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    Thanks, I assumed that's the one but wasn't sure. I don't think I've read the book. Added a note to the answer. Commented May 13, 2016 at 17:43
  • +1 for the answer. It shows how creative prose fiction can be. I think it also shows that contemporary modern speakers aren't aware of the obsolete usage of to strain that @DamkerngT minions. Commented May 13, 2016 at 19:26
  • @AlanCarmack If I may ask, as I'm quite curious now, what did you mean by that minions? :-) Commented May 14, 2016 at 7:01
  • @DamkerngT. I meant mentions. Swiftkey thought otherwise. Commented May 15, 2016 at 5:50
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I think the definition of 'strain', in this context will be:

to pour or pass (a substance) or (of a substance) to be poured or passed through a sieve, filter, or strainer

Here, the substance, though used metaphorically, is the "blue mist". We all know that no sieve or filter is fine enough to hinder mist. Maybe the author meant that the song sung by her grandfather went through her (Again, metaphorically) like mist through a sieve. This may mean that she understood nothing from her grandfather's song, maybe it's the language or what he implied by singing that song.

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strain can be used as a noun about music, but none of the verbal uses are appropriate- separating liquids from solids, appliying pressure to something, causing resources (especially money) to be used.

The expression blue mist is also rather suspect: whereas red mist has clear connotations (anger), there is no such connotation for blue mist. It is the name of a brand of tobacco and a type of flower.

It is probably best to treat the whole clause as purple prose and not try to examine the meaning literally.

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