Reading Contemporary Fiction Lecture 3 The Short Story

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Reading Contemporary Fiction Lecture 3 The Short Story

  • Semester 1, 2008
  • David Sornig

Fort/Da - What is a Short Story?

  • I wouldn’t be the first person to begin a lecture on the form of the short story with the not so clever observation that a short story is exactly what it says it is: a story that is short.
  • But how short can a story be? It might be argued that shortest story in the world is told in childhood. In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ Sigmund Freud recounts the incident of his grandchild playing with a toy on a string who throws it over the side of its pram and utters the German word ‘fort’ (gone) and then reels it in and exclaims ‘Da!’ (Here).
  • This sense of progression – gone and here – is perhaps the underlying structure of all stories. Ulysses leaves to fight the Trojan wars and he returns years later to reclaim his home and wife. The narrator of Peter Carey’s short story ‘War Crimes’ moves from an absence of knowledge (fort) about the true reason for his profits being siphoned off, to its presence (da).

Narrative – Recounting presence and absence

  • If all narratives are about recounting presence and absence in one form or another then to define the short story we need to think about what distinguishes it from other story-telling forms. This is not such a simple task.
  • As Michael Wilding says in this week’s reading:
    • “The short story is in dialogue with novels. Poems, plays, essays; it is not sealed off from other genres”

The short story and the novel

  • So, we are caught in a position of knowing that there is a form of literary writing identifiable as a short story but not really knowing how to distinguish it from other forms.
  • We could say that the short story is a piece of prose fiction writing that runs from anywhere between 500 and 10,000 words. Beyond this we might say that we are in the territory of the novella, and eventually the novel. Like all numerical definitions these are not absolute.
  • In many formal aspects the short story is most obviously linked to the novel.
  • US critic Suzanne Ferguson argues that the “main formal characteristics of the modern novel and the modern short story are the same.”

Evolution of the short story: tales and sketches

  • The literary form of the short story has evolved over the last 150 years or so.
  • According to Robert Marler it became distinct from the ‘tale’ in the 1850s when the tales being published in periodicals were receiving poor critical reception.
  • These tales and sketches were seen as being exceedingly didactic, sentimental and poorly written.
  • Stories that found critical praise were those which contained their moralizing within the work of plot and characterization, rather than authorial intervention.

Evolution of the short story: Poe and the ‘single effect’

  • The short story grows around the concept of the reader who is able to read the story in a unified single sitting – this is in opposition to the novel in which the reader is in different states of mind at each sitting
  • The writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe set the critical parameters for the short story in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Twice Told Tales’. He described short stories as:
    • ‘short prose narrative requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in perusal.’
  • Allied with this idealized brevity is the concept of what Poe calls the ‘single effect’.
  • These aspects of the short story are critically encouraged together with the shift toward realism in literary fiction.

From realism to modernism

  • Part of the realism that comes to increasingly pervade the short story toward the end of the 19th century is psychological realism.
  • The characters in James Joyce’s stories for example in ‘Dubliners’ written around the turn of the century still move from ignorance to knowledge but increasingly do so in an idiom that speaks to the development of the concept of the modern subject – fragmented and inconclusive with old certainties breaking down.
  • US critic William Peden writes that the short story retains these characteristics: ‘brief, elliptical, and unwinking, tends to ask questions rather than to suggest answers, to show rather than attempt to solve.’
  • Both the development of the modern psychological, individual and bourgeois subject, and the deliberate coyness of the short story in arriving at solid conclusions are apt to the fragmentation associated with the coming of 20th century modernism – where reality is perceived as a cauldron of cultural and phenomenological fragments.
  • The great short story writers, those whose work enters into the canon of modernist literature emerge in this era. We find writers like James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov and later Ernest Hemingway.

Modernism and Impressionism

  • Writing of the ‘modern’ or ‘impressionistic’ short story and novel of the early 20th century US critic Susan C. Ferguson identifies the following features in it:
    • Limitation and foregrounding of point of view
    • Emphasis on presentation of sensation and inner experience
    • The deletion or transformation of several elements of the traditional plot
    • Increasing reliance on metaphor and metonymy in the presentation of events and existents
    • Rejection of chronological time ordering
    • Formal and stylistic economy
    • The foregrounding of style
  • Ferguson differentiates the short story from longer fiction forms along the lines of the influence of a form of art more usually associated with the movement in the visual arts known as impressionism.

Impressionism in Visual Art: Monet

  • Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)
  • 1873 (210 Kb); Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm (19 x 24 3/8"); Musee Marmottan, Paris

Impressionism and Literature

  • JA Cuddon in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory writes that the impressionists were
    • ‘concerned with the transitory effects of light, and they wished to depict the fleeting impression from a subjective point of view. They were not interested in a precise representation; the resulting impression depended on the impression of the spectator’
  • Impressionism as a visual art movement was concerned not with the kind of photographic realism that had come to dominate European painting but to portray visual reality that accurately recorded the experienced effect of light and colour.
  • In this sense it informed the literary form of impressionism which also foregrounds an approach to representation which favours the apprehension of ‘reality’ through a focus on experiential phenomena – the senses, consciousness.
  • As Ferguson puts it: ‘the representation of experience as experienced by individuals’.
  • This is a modification of what we might think of as realism. This altered attitude to the real is what distinguishes modernism from earlier forms.

The ‘real’ in Modernism

  • Nevertheless modernism in art and literature remains an essentialist movement.
  • It questions the scientific positivism of earlier periods while remaining focused on trying to capture something real, or essential, about existence.
  • This would come to be challenged in the post-war years – especially after the 1960s with the emergence of post-structuralism and post-modernism which in its more acute forms rejects the possibility of language representing anything apart from language.

Impressionism and the short story

  • In any case turn of the century impressionism, Ferguson argues, lends itself particularly well to the form of the short story.
  • In particular Ferguson cites the influence of impressionism on the plot of short stories:
  • ‘The deemphasis of physical action in impressionist fiction (or the disjunction of physical action from thought and feeling), which leaves adjustments of thought or feeling as the true “events” of the plot, makes the articulation of plot in many cases obscure’

Deletion of plot in the short story

  • The main symptom of this obfuscation is the deletion of elements of the plot that would be filled out in the form of the novel.
  • This deletion gives rise to two forms of plot:
    • Elliptical plots
    • Metaphoric plots
  • The omissions in both types of plot cause a rise in the work rate of the reader.
  • Effectively we are asked to give some thought to making out the underlying hypothetical plot.

Elliptical plots

  • In the elliptical plot there are omissions from the chronological series of events which might be referred to but which are never directly narrated.
  • The entire story might take place at the moment of some crisis, or immediately preceding it.
  • The emphasis is on the narration of the moment.
  • A novel does the work of elaborating or returning to those plot points, but a short story with an elliptical plot will not.

Metaphoric plot

  • A metaphoric plot will represent aspects of the hypothetical plot by way of a set of images and events.
  • A metaphor, you will remember, is a function of language which relates two seemingly unrelated subjects by way of direct comparison.
  • To say of a sports person, for example, ‘She’s running hot today’ compares the abilities of the sportsperson to an engine working at full capacity.

Short story plots: Two Sisters 1

  • I’ll work through an example in Ama Ata Aidoo’s story ‘Two Sisters’ to give you a clearer idea of what I mean about elliptical and metaphoric plots.

‘Two Sisters’ – Events of the story

  • The events of the story are relatively simple and occur in scenes on two days.
  • Day one: Finishing work and wearing a new pair of shoes, Mercy comes home to the house of her sister Connie (Sissie) and her husband James.
  • Connie and Mercy talk about Mercy’s desire to marry.
  • Connie notices the shoes. Mercy reveals that she is the lover of the political figure Mensar Arthur.
  • Connie is morally offended by this.
  • Mensar-Arthur picks Mercy up in his powerful car and they head to the Seaway where they ‘play with each other’s bodies’.
  • Back at home Connie tells her husband James about the affair and James sees opportunity in this for advancement.
  • Jump forward through a couple of months as Connie has her baby, receives the gift of the sewing machine motor from Mensar-Arthur, Mercy moves into a government estate house and then the coup which overturns the old order and Mensar-Arthur is no longer in power.
  • Day two: Connie and James discuss the changed political situation.
  • Connie is glad the moral/social threat to her sister has disappeared.
  • James is disappointed that he won’t have a patron to procure a new taxi for him.
  • Mercy arrives in a car for the first time in a while and again with new shoes and a new man – Captain Ashey, a powerful and quite old figure in the post-coup government.

Formal elements

  • We manage to develop a sense of the hypothetical story from certain formal elements of the story:
    • the narrating voice which shifts point of view. This voice is at some points:
      • in the third person focalized through Mercy’s consciousness and voice (‘..Mm, so for the meantime it is going to continue to be the municipal bus with grimy seats, it’s common passengers and impudent conductors…Jesus!’),
      • more objective third person (‘The new pair of black shoes are more realistic than their owner, though. As she walks down the corridor they sing’)
      • and at other times again in the first person, speaking in Connie’s voice (and I believed her because I know what they pay her is just not enough to last anyone through any month, even minus rent.’)
      • or even that of the Old Sea.
    • The other major device used in this story is dialogue. Through dialogue some events (such as Mensar-Arthur’s jailing) are referred to indirectly.

‘Two Sisters’ Hypothetical plot

  • These formal elements allow us to piece together from the elliptical plot the chronological events of the story, not all of which have not been directly narrated – the hypothetical plot.
    • The African nation of Ghana on the Gulf of Guinea becomes independent of its British colonial government.
    • The sisters’ parents die and Connie, the elder sibling who is married to James a philandering and ambitious taxi driver, becomes more-or-less the guardian of her younger sister Mercy.
    • Mercy goes to work in an office every day as a typist and is being courted by a taxi-driver named Joe.
    • In an materially aspirational move Mercy becomes the regular, but not exclusive lover of Mensar-Arthur, a member of the Ghanain parliament.
    • Mercy reveals this relationship to her sister who disapproves on moral grounds.
    • A coup takes place and Mensar-Arthur is jailed.
    • Connie is relieved that the coup has removed her sister from moral danger.
    • Mercy becomes the lover of Captain Ashey.
    • She reveals this relationship to her sister.

Elliptical detective work

  • This story is not an extreme example of ellipticality (much of what happens is referred to directly)
  • Nevertheless putting together the omitted plot aspects of ‘Two Sisters’ allows us to see that the work of narrating – or assembling a story – is done somewhere between the writing and reading
  • This detective work is part of the work of making sense of an elliptical plot
  • We make sense of a chronology of events that have been omitted in the same way that we collect the impressions of light portrayed in the Monet to piece together a ‘real’ version of the image of a small boat on the water at sunrise.
  • Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)
  • 1873 (210 Kb); Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm (19 x 24 3/8"); Musee Marmottan, Paris

Metaphoric plot

  • The sense of metaphoric plot is also at work here.
  • The events being narrated present a narrow domestic and personal story of the opposing approaches that the two sisters have toward obtaining personal gain through one sister’s morally doubtful association with political figures.
  • We also read the omission here of the larger political story as significant – or rather we can read the small events which are foregrounded as standing for the larger events.
  • Technically this is known as metonym. (In the same sense that we refer to the White House when we mean the entire institution of the US presidency.)
  • We have here an African country independent of its colonial power, run by people like Mensar-Arthur who exploit their position of power to enhance their economic and personal status.
  • There is reference here to a larger economic and social order which, in a novel, might have been more fully explored but which here has been backgrounded.
  • This backgrounding of political events which clearly has an enormous influence on the lives of the characters is juxtaposed against a sudden broad view through the deliberate shift of the point of view.
  • The point of view moves from that of the sisters, and even a more objective third person to the sudden meta-objective focalization of the Old Sea which observes the political and sexual powerplays with bored detachment.
  • The metaphor at work here, especially with the change of power that comes with the coup and the oblique references to centres of economic and political power like London where Mensar-Arthur travels on a trade delegation, and ‘the white man’s land’ where cars are manufactured, could be one about the transitory nature of power and status and their contingency on other centres of power and status.

Challenging centres of power

  • I made mention earlier of the relationship between impressionism to the modernist movement which devolved the established preeminence of scientific positivism in the representational arts.
  • This devolution continued through the twentieth century as writers consciously challenged the masculine, colonial and economic centres of power that had dominated the representation of women and colonized subjects.
  • The short story in the post-modern, post-colonial and feminist era challenges many centres of power and knowledge
  • One question you might like to take up in your tutorial groups is to consider what centering of knowledge is being challenged in each of the stories.
  • We can locate each of the short stories being studied in this week by Peter Carey, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Margaret Atwood, as working somewhere along the continuum between realism, modernism and post-modernism.
  • Each is implicitly or explicitly critiquing something about the culture that they are giving voice to.

‘Two Sisters’: Post-colonial contradictions

  • Aidoo’s ‘Two Sisters’, as I have alluded to, concerns itself with a historically ‘real’ situation which is told through a sometimes non-realist method.
  • The function of this method might be to allow her to point out the contradictions that exist in a post-colonial society, the perhaps too-idealistic attachment of Connie to her Presbyterian morality and her support of the coup which overthrew what she thinks of a corrupt regime whose end would be the ruin of her sister.
  • One question you might like to consider is whether the story suggests it is more beneficial to remain pragmatically attached to whoever is in power as Mercy does, or to remain ‘true’ to ideals, as exemplified by Connie.
  • An important point to make here is that this is a story about an African experience written from the ‘inside’. This is not colonial view of Africa, which might observe its characters as exotic Others.

‘War Crimes’: counter-culture capitalists

  • Carey’s ‘War Crimes’ is typical of his 1970s short stories in that that it presents a vision of a post-apocalyptic world, or at least some kind of future dystopian reality which is nevertheless seen as being continuous with the reality of the 1970s.
  • The story might be read as a critique of the loss of idealism among the hippie counter-culture generation of the 1960s and the cynicism that came to characterize the punk era of the late 70s.
  • Rather than getting into some kind of nostalgia about the era, this story imagines a world in which there is massive and perpetual unemployment, a welfare state which supports those who are marginalized by rampant capitalism.

‘The Age of Lead’: Progress and its discontents

  • Margaret Atwood’s story ‘The Age of Lead’ concerns itself with a critique of life in a modern urban setting.
  • The central character Jane, through whom the story is focalised, emerges at the point of the story’s present in the early nineties having lived through the great cultural generational dislocations and liberations of the sixties, the materialism and decay of the seventies and eighties, through to her present where she is alone, lonely and in perpetual doubt about the cause of death of her long standing friend Vincent.
  • We have another dystopia in this story (again typical of the author) but in this case the dystopia is not fantastic or exotic but real.

‘The Age of Lead’ (cont)

  • Framing Jane’s story are the ‘real life’ events being shown on television of the exhumation from the permafrost of the body of John Torrington – one of the apparent victims of the excesses of human reach in trying to continue the colonial expansion of the western powers in the doomed Franklin expedition (which perhaps not coincidentally is mentioned in Conrad’s colonial novella ‘Heart of Darkness’) trying to find a speedier trade route through a Northwest passage over the Arctic.
  • The place of the Torrington story seems uncertain until the story’s denouement which reveals that this frozen corpse and the rest of the crew were not victims of the weather, but rather the effects of lead poisoning. The story which emerges from the ice into Jane’s present through the television is really a signal indicating the start of the age of lead – the age of industrial production and innovation which appears to advance civilisation but which has hidden consequences – those which linger and impact uncertainly on Jane’s life and those in the materially decaying urban world about her.


  • These are three examples of a form of fiction that with its economy of language, its sometimes oblique attitude toward the chronological and ‘realist’ re-presentation of events, people and objects and its tendency toward metaphor, operates perhaps – in opposition to the novel – more like a poem.

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