Short Story

   

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    A short story is a brief work of prose fiction, and most of the terms for analyzing the component elements, the types, and the various narrative techniques of the novel are applicable to the short story as well. The short story differs from the anecdote-the unelaborated narration of a single incident-in that, like the novel, it organizes the action, thought, and interactions of its characters into the artful pattern of a plot. And as in the novel, the plot form may be comic, tragic, romantic, or satiric; the story is presented to us from one of many available points of view; and it may be written in the mode of fantasy, realism, or naturalism.

    In the tale, or “story of incident,” the focus of interest is on the course and outcome of the events, as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug (1843) and in other tales of detection, in many of the stories of O.Henry (1862-1910), and in the stock but sometimes well-contrived western and adventure stories in the popular magazines. “Stories of character” focus instead on the state of mind and motivation, or on the psychological and moral qualities, of the protagonists. In some of the stories of character by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), the Russian master of the form, nothing more happens than an encounter and conversation between two people. Ernest Hemingway’s classic “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” consists only of a curt conversation between two waiters about an old man who each day gets drunk and stays on in the cafe until it closes, followed by a brief meditation on the part of one of the waiters. In some stories there is a balance of interest between external action and character. Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is as violent in its packed events as any sensational adventure-tale, but every particular of the action and dialogue is contrived to test and reveal, with a surprising set of reversals, the moral quality of all three protagonists.

English: Illustration by

English: Illustration by “Wogel” for Poe’s short story MS. Found in a Bottle for an early edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The short story, however, differs from the novel in the dimension that Aristotle called “magnitude,” and this limitation of length imposes differences both in the effects that can be achieved and in the choice, elaboration, and management of the elements to achieve those effects. Edgar Allan Poe, who is sometimes called the originator of the short story as an established genre, was at any rate its first critical theorists. He defined what he called “the prose tale” as a narrative which can be read at one sitting of from half an hour to two hours, and is limited to “a certain unique or single effect” to which every detail is subordinate (Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, 1842). Poe’s comment applies to many short stories, and points to the economy of management which the tightness of the form always imposes in some degree. We can say that, by and large, the short story writer introduces a very limited number of persons, cannot afford the space for the leisurely analysis and sustained development of character, and cannot under-take to develop as dense and detailed a social milieu as does the novelist. The author often begins the story close to, or even on the verge of, the climax, minimizes both prior exposition and the details of the setting, keeps the complications down, and clears up the denouement quickly-sometimes in a few sentences. The central incident is often selected to manifest as much as possible of the protagonist’s life and character, and the details are devised to carry maximum import for the development of the plot. This spareness in the narrative often gives the artistry in a good short story higher visibility than the artistry in the more capacious and loosely structured novel.

    Many distinguished short stories depart from this paradigm in various ways. It must be remembered that the name covers a great diversity of prose fiction, all the way from the short short story, which is a slightly elaborated anecdote of perhaps five hundred words, to such long and complex forms as Herman Melville’s “Billy Bud,”  Henry James “The Turn of The Screw” (1898), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), and Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician (1930). In such works, the status of middle length between the tautness of the short story and expansiveness of the novel is sometimes indicated by the name novelette, or novella. This form has been especially exploited in Germany (where it is called the Novelle) after it was introduced by Goethe in 1795 and carried on by Heinrich Von Kleist and many other writers; the genre has also been the subject of special critical attention by Germany theorists ( see the list of readings below).

    The short narrative, in both verse and prose, is one of the oldest and most widespread of literary forms; the Hebrew Bible, for example, includes the stories of Jonah, Ruth, Esther. Some of the narrative types which preceded the short story, are the fable, that exemplum, the folktale, the fabliau, and the parable. Early in its history, there developed device of the frame-story: a preliminary narrative within which one or more characters proceeds to tell a series of short stories. This device was widespread in the oral and written literature of the East, as in the collection of stories called The Arabian Nights, and was used by Boccaccio for his prose Decameron (1353) and by Chaucer for his versified Canterbury Tales (1387). In the latter instance, Chaucer developed the frame-story of the journey, dialogue, and interactions of the Canterbury pilgrims to such a degree that the frame itself approximated the form of a plot. Within this frame-plot, each story constitutes a complete and rounded narrative, yet functions  also both as a means of characterizing the teller and as a vehicle for the quarrels and topics of argument en route. In its more recent forms, the frame-story may enclose either a single narrative (Joel Chandler Harris’ stories as told by Uncle Remus, 1881 and later).

      The form of prose narrative which approximates the contemporary concept of short story was developed in the 19th century by  Washington Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe in America, Sir Walter Scott in England, E.T.A Hoffman in Germany, Balzac in France, and Gogol and Turgenev in Russia. The short story in English has flourished in America more than in England; Frank O’Conner has called it “the national art form,” and its American masters include (in addition to the writers mentioned above) William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, John O’Hara, J.F. Powers, John Cheever, and J.D.Salinger. 

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