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The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925

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Florence Goyet

Epilogue: Beyond the Classic Short Story

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  • 1 See Mary Rohrberger, Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story (The Hague: Mouton, 1966); and Mary Rohr (...)
  • 2 Clare Hanson, Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), pp (...)

1The title of this book has given a chronological indication: 1870-1925, the period that represents the heyday for the “classic” short story. Before 1870, or rather at the beginning of the nineteenth century, short stories had a very different form, for example those of Nathaniel Hawthorne.1 After 1920, there emerged a new type of short story that renounced all the characteristic traits we have described. Classic short stories continued to be written — and continued to sell — but beside them the twentieth century saw the rise of something quite different, which corresponds to what Clare Hanson calls “short fiction”, and which she has showed to be linked with the advent of Modernism.2 Structure was no longer based on antithesis or even paroxysms, and the distant look at the subject completely disappeared, together with the author’s and reader’s superior attitudes; monologism was no longer a standard feature.

2This transition between the “classic” short story and what I call the new “modern” form started in the very corpus of work we have been investigating. The authors we have analysed, who practiced the classic form with extraordinary success, also published texts that can be taken as heralds of the new form. To finish this book, I shall describe two types of stories — lengthy stories and fantastic tales — that led to the emergence of this new type of short fiction, and explore in more detail the work of authors that sat at the “crossroads” between the classic and modern short story.

Lengthy stories: the long Yvette after the brief Yveline

  • 3 Examples of longer stories that retain a “classic” monologism — and that we have been able to use (...)
  • 4 A translation of the briefer Yveline Samoris, titled Yvette Samoris, is on Project Gutenberg http: (...)

3Among the classic short stories of the time, the “lengthy stories” are quite special. Of course, not all lengthy stories are exceptions to the “classic” rule of monologism, but in certain cases the long short story repudiates the classic format, in that it foregoes both the strong structure of antithesis and the “exotic” perspective.3 Lengthy stories or novellas can be said to “dilute” the narrative, and the change in length then changes everything. Guy de Maupassant’s Yvette is a telling example, as we can compare it with a classic short story previously written by Maupassant on the same subject, the briefer Yveline Samoris.4 Both texts tell the story of a girl (“Yveline” who becomes “Yvette” in the long story), the daughter of a “demimondaine”, one of the high class prostitutes of nineteenth-century Paris who pretended to be aristocrats, and entertained wealthy men who joined in the illusion. The girl is very young and naïve, taking people at face value, living a free, gay life in what she thinks is a real salon. Sérigny, a newcomer to her mother’s house, is attracted to Yveline/Yvette but cannot decide whether he should seduce her.

  • 5 At the beginning of the longer tale, Sérigny says of Yvette: “She provokes me and excites me like (...)

4In the brief story, Yveline Samoris, the antithetical tension established between the two contrasting images of the young woman provides, as usual, a strong structure. Sérigny is trying to decipher a riddle: is Yveline/Yvette totally, absolutely corrupt or totally, absolutely innocent?5 The ending will prove that she was, in fact, totally innocent; when she realises what is going on in her mother’s house she finds herself caught between two equally unbearable (and equally paroxystic) possibilities: living with Sérigny, whom she has come to love, and leading a corrupt life; or sticking to her ideals and renouncing him.

5Her answer — a typical answer in classic short stories (see, for example, Agatha’s decision in Henry James’s The Modern Warning, discussed in Chapter Eleven) — is to commit suicide. Distance from the subject takes on the very familiar form of satire of this all too worldly world. The twist-in-the-tail strengthens both the distancing and the powerful effect of the anecdote by forcing the clash between the two antithetical poles of innocence and corruption. The debased society around her refuses to learn from this act of desperation, and her death is officially attributed to an accident caused by a faulty furnace. We have here a particularly vivid display of the traits encountered throughout this study. The characters are not only distanced from the reader, they are straightforward types; not only what we have called “objective types” (social or psychological “roles” which the reader has already met or heard about), but this time clear literary types: the “coquette”, the “libertine” and the “ingénue”.

  • 6 Ibid, p. 124 (pp. 267-68).

6In the lengthy short story, Yvette, little is left of these typical features. When reworking his tale into a seventy-page novella, Maupassant abandons nearly everything that made it so “classic” a short story. The antithesis and the paroxysms on which it was based disappear. Already by the end of the third chapter, the riddle (corrupt or innocent?) is solved, because we enter into the mind of Yvette and discover that she is neither one nor the other. From then on, the text no longer plays with contradictory ideas — either harlot or virgin — but dwells on a world vision that is complex, ambiguous and still truly unformed. From this point of view, the scene in the riverside café, that takes place in the novella but not the short story, is extremely important. The young woman swims beside Sérigny, happy to let him see her body — a completely sensual yet innocent happiness — because she is only conscious of the moment and not of what this sight might arouse in him.6 The story no longer bears the stamp of the dilemma; the suicide is no longer the natural solution to a narrative situation which is no longer set in terms of irreducible contrasts. Yvette will live amid contradictions.

7The consequences of this reworking of the material are not minor. Length has been used to develop hidden potentialities in the subject in a way that contrasts with the usual short story format. In this novella, the heroine is no longer in the least strange or foreign, and she has a full and autonomous “voice”. We are finally “with” the character, whose initially strange qualities are superseded by a truly profound perspective of her.

Fantastic tales: the deconstruction of the self

  • 7 To take a simple example: when the character could appear to us as a coward, the narrator (or the (...)

8Fantastic tales (especially those dealing with madness), even more than lengthy short stories, could be seen as the “missing link”, the step that took the genre from its “classic” to “modern” format. Here, the narrative is not “diluted” (as it is in lengthy stories or novellas) but rather fragmented, in order to portray an unexpected mental universe. Throughout this study, we have seen that fantastic tales used the same material as other classic short stories, but in their own way. Like the classic short story, they present the reader with an unquestionably strange world; but at the same time they exceed the restraints of the framework because they try to let us penetrate a different logic. To be successful, these stories must achieve a sort of quivering of meaning: that oscillation of the readers’ belief between the possible and the impossible, between what is rational and what is not. The fantastic narrative entices us to participate for a few moments in a strange world, or, in the case of tales of madness, in an unfamiliar way of thinking. In the latter case, the whole point rests in the display of a “sick” mind as a somewhat viable perspective on the world. Contrary to the realistic classic short stories, which painstakingly build and strengthen the distance between the spectacle and the reader, these tales will try to lessen that distance.7 In the fantastic story, the reader can no longer be sure of anything, and is unable to occupy the usual comfortable and clear position he was granted in the classic short story.

9These fantastic tales retain the structural features of the classic short story, but only in order to rework them along these new lines. For example, they do not hesitate to use the tools that accelerate the reader’s entry into the narrative. We see in them antitheses, quasi-abstract entities, and sometimes even character types. Yet these usual short story devices led to a dramatically different outlook when used in fantastic stories: they participate in arousing an emotion in us rather than simply conveying an anecdote. The paroxysms, for example, are used for their thematic presence, and contribute to establishing a world different from ours. Unlike classic shorty stories, in which these devices are so inconspicuous that they mostly go unnoticed, the fantastic story makes the reader oversensitive to them, destabilising his relationship to the text. What has been destroyed is the fundamental ground on which the classic short story was built: that of the reader’s certainties.

10We saw, throughout the analyses in Part III, that the reader is invited in classic short stories to look upon a profoundly different world. Whether they laugh at the characters, or pity them, or denounce their customs, the readers do so from the position of superiority, for example that of one who knows they could introduce the characters to “progress”. However, readers can only do this when their belief in themselves and the “correct” path are strong and unshaking. Stories about madness, of which Maupassant wrote many, challenge our belief in a rational and stable subject. These stories prepare the transition to the new concept of the short story that will emerge in the twentieth century, in which all guidelines will be abolished, and author and reader will no longer be sure of their correctly understanding the world.

Authors at a crossroads

11Most of the great authors studied here are also in themselves embodying this transition. Maupassant is one of the major links in the deconstruction of the classic short story: he wrote both lengthy short stories and fantastic tales. His well-known interest in the pathological states of consciousness and his mastery of the oscillation of meaning were at odds with the neat and effective exotic story. Other major authors who were masters of the classic short story — particularly Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Anton Chekhov, Luigi Pirandello and Giovanni Verga, as we shall see below — also embodied the transition from one form to the other.

  • 8 As we saw earlier, the Japanese did not have a special word for “short story” prior to the last ye (...)
  • 9 The narrative short story in its most classic form did not disappear; many stories by Joyce Carol (...)

12My first goal in studying Akutagawa along with the European authors was to put my structural hypotheses to the test: if stories written in dramatically different circumstances showed the same features, then we could start to generalise about generic conventions. And indeed, in a country with a very different tradition from that of the West, where length has never been considered important as a criterion, we have met with this “classic” form of the short story, of which most of Akutagawa’s texts, from Mikan (The Tangerines) to Kareno shō (Withered Fields) or Hana (The Nose), could be taken as canonical examples.8 But Akutagawa is also acclaimed as a master of what we are accustomed to call the “modern” short story. As a writer of both kinds of texts from 1914 on, Akutagawa proves that the evolution towards short fiction does not result from the creative personality of the author, nor from an automatic, historic evolution.9

  • 10 For example, with the zuihitsu — the “following the brush” essay — a form illustrated in the thirt (...)

13Tales of madness are again an essential link. Akutagawa writes “formless” texts that are often akin to those of the “stream of consciousness” mode of writing. The one unifying principle tends to be the actual mind it comes from; for example, that of the “dwarf” in Shuju no kotoba (The Words of a Dwarf), or that of the young man Akutagawa in the autobiographical Aru hō no isshō (The Life of an Idiot). Even when they follow the chronological order of events, as in Haguruma (The Gears), the outcome is dramatically different from that of the classic short stories. Paroxysms are rare, and when they appear occasionally, they are never used to build a strong structure. Nothing is resolved at the end of these texts; in fact, no tension will have been created that could lead to a resolution, let alone a “twist-in-the-tail”. We are invited to penetrate the erratic way of thinking rather than contemplating it from afar. One could stress Akutagawa’s links with Japanese literary traditions.10 But this should not overshadow the fact that he is also sharing in the essential preoccupation of writers around the world at that time: the deconstruction of the self, and doubt about reason’s grasp of reality.

  • 11 On this topic, see for example Eileen Baldeshwiler, “The Lyric Short Story: The Sketch of a Histor (...)
  • 12 Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū, 19 vols (Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1954-1955), IV, (...)

14Moreover, Akutagawa had begun writing with another kind of non-narrative text: the lyrical story, which also had much in common with those of American or European authors of the time.11 These lyrical stories also rejected the dominance of the anecdote, and they originated at a very early point in Akutagawa’s career: Ōgawa no mizu (The River’s Water) and Shisō (The Shadow) were both written when he was still a student. Again these stories share few of the features that characterise his classic narrative stories. A good example is one of Akutagawa’s most beautiful tales, Bisei no shin (The Faith of Wei Cheng), in which a man, waiting on a river bank for a woman who never comes, is finally drowned by the rising tide.12 What is striking is that this most unusual situation of a man not trying to escape imminent drowning is not portrayed as strange or uncommon. Even the waiting is not made to seem extraordinary. And neither the water nor the landscape is characterised by any particular tension: there is no paroxystic treatment of the elements here and, as a consequence, no antithesis will emerge. However, unlike most stream of consciousness stories, this text has a strong structure; but it is a structure very similar to that of the musical “rondo”, with a refrain: “Onna wa imada ni konai (But the lady still does not come)”. The effect it produces is closer to that of music or poetry than prose. Nothing in this is reminiscent of the tightly-wound narratives we saw earlier in this book; yet neither is it “formless”.

  • 13 Chekhov’s “modern” stories include The Bishop (1902) and The Bride (1903).
  • 14 Brander Matthews proposed to use the term “short-story” to describe the story that does not only h (...)

15Chekhov is perhaps an even more obvious example of the move to “short fiction” or the modern short story — many critics see him primarily as an author of this latter type of writing. However, I would argue that he only wrote a few stories in this mode, generally at the end of his career; most of his stories were perfectly “classic”.13 That is part of the reason why I think that a study of the classic short story is necessary: far from being only a form for minor or inexperienced writers, it was the core practice for most writers at the end of the nineteenth century. Chekhov was interested in the idea of progress and satire, both of which could be illustrated effectively in the classic short story format. Neither The Mujiks nor Enemies, nor of course The Death of a Civil Servant nor Gooseberries could be described in the terms generally used for speaking of Chekhov as a writer of nuance and complexity. This, of course, does not mean that the usual criticism on his work does not hold true; only that we need to recognise his other modes of writing. What makes Chekhov so great is the way he was able to use the classic form and go beyond it. The same could be said of the other authors studied here. I have been able to use Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog to illustrate many points of the classic short story format, although this is a favourite story for the criticism interested in the (hyphened) “short-story” — to use Brander Matthews’ term for the modern short story — which for its part insists on epiphany.14

  • 15 An abridged translation is available in Ruth Spack, The International Story: An Anthology with Gui (...)
  • 16 The translation reads: “a bulky woman in deep mourning was hosted in — almost like a shapeless bun (...)

16One will not be surprised that, for Pirandello, the advent of the dramatic form breeds this motion out of the short story format. Quando si comprende (War) begins as a classic short story indeed.15 In its opening scene, a bereaved mother is literally hauled up into the rail wagon by her husband; she is reified, assimilated to a parcel.16 Everything in the scene is grotesque. And then, something completely different emerges when the characters begin to communicate with each other in a dramatic dialogue. Suddenly, the characters cease to be ridiculous and pitiful. That the story is called in Italian “When one understands” reminds us this is all a question of renouncing the prejudices we bring to the reading and of re-working the distance usual to the format, to let the characters get a full “voice”.

  • 17 With the exception of Libertà (Liberty), a non-narrative tale, which describes the movements of a (...)
  • 18 The classic short story Nedda was published in 1874; the (classic) cycles Primavera e altri raccon (...)

17It is the same situation with Verga. Leo Spitzer, in his study of Verga’s I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree), insisted exactly on this emergence of a full voice for the characters. As we saw in Chapter Nine, the decision of narrating the novel through the eyes and words of one of the characters (the device of regression) is a means of hearing their truth, different from ours. But we saw also that the same device in the stories is a means of exoticism.17 Here again, presence or absence of the anecdote seems to be the dividing line: The House by the Medlar Tree “tells” nothing, it only has us enter more and more profoundly in a world distinct from ours, and lose on the way our preconceptions. It is not a question of an author’s ripening mastery of his art. The House by the Medlar Tree dates from 1881, roughly the same time as his great short story cycles.18

******

18Such an evolution represents the unravelling of the very form of the classic short story. Boundaries with other genres become blurred. The traits that firmly characterised the short story at the end of the nineteenth century disappear and are not replaced by anything half so clear. Instead of a few structuring traits, the new modern stories showed a variety of features that had little in common with one another. Of course, rhetorical devices were multifarious in the classic short story, but, as we saw, this variety was superficial: the genre relied on a few constant principles. These in-depth features meant that the surface traits did not have to be repetitive. Readers knew a short story when they saw one, and never hesitated to label a text as a “short story” except in a few lengthy examples. The new form is not so clearly discernible, as is obvious from the very wide use of the term “short fiction” to speak of short stories as well as of other genres. Short texts are considered fiction like any other: lyrical stories sometimes verging on the prose poem, but also short works resembling theatre, as exemplified by Akutagawa on the one hand and Pirandello on the other. By renouncing the classic way of telling stories which had met with such success in the end of the nineteenth century, the genre in its new form joins with other genres to conquer new territories of the mind: polyphony and stream of consciousness rather than anecdote and monologism. What made the authors we have seen so great is that they knew not to stop at the perfect form that they had contributed to shape, but saw beyond it and could in the same years use and renounce its major features and its somewhat awesome efficacy.

Notes

1 See Mary Rohrberger, Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story (The Hague: Mouton, 1966); and Mary Rohrberger, “Origins, Development, Substance, and Design of the Short Story: How I Got Hooked on the Short Story and Where It Led Me”, in The Art of Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis, ed. by Per Winther, Jakob Lothe, and Hans H. Skei (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 3-13. On Rohrberger’s influence on recent criticism, see for example Susan Lohafer, Introduction, Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, ed. by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1990).

2 Clare Hanson, Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), pp. 1-9.

3 Examples of longer stories that retain a “classic” monologism — and that we have been able to use as examples of the classic format — include Chekhov’s Skuchnaya istoriya (A Boring Story) and Poprygun’ya (The Grasshopper), as well as Henry James’s Daisy Miller, The Figure in the Carpet and The Beast in the Jungle.

4 A translation of the briefer Yveline Samoris, titled Yvette Samoris, is on Project Gutenberg http://archive.org/stream/completeoriginal03090gut/old/gm00v11.txt (accessed 16/10/2013). For the original French text, see Guy de Maupassant, Contes et nouvelles, ed. by Louis Forestier, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, collection La Pléiade, 1974), I, pp. 684-88 (hereafter Pléiade). The longer Yvette can be found in Guy de Maupassant, Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, trans. by Artine Artinian (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1955), pp. 104-48 (hereafter Artinian). For the original French text, see Pléiade, II, pp. 234-307.

5 At the beginning of the longer tale, Sérigny says of Yvette: “She provokes me and excites me like a harlot, and guards herself at the same time as though she were a virgin […] Sometimes I imagine that she has as many lovers as her mother. Sometimes I think that she knows nothing about life, absolutely nothing”. Artinian, p. 107 (Pléiade, II, p. 239).

6 Ibid, p. 124 (pp. 267-68).

7 To take a simple example: when the character could appear to us as a coward, the narrator (or the “reflector”) quickly shows that their fear is more than understandable — it is absolutely normal — and that we, too, would have reacted in the same way. See, for example, Maupassant’s La Peur (Pléiade, I, pp. 600-06) or Lui? (Pléiade, I, pp. 869-75). This type of empathy is never evoked in the realistic classic short story.

8 As we saw earlier, the Japanese did not have a special word for “short story” prior to the last years of the nineteenth century. Up to that time, the same word, monogatari, was used indifferently: for the Genji monogatari and its thousands of pages, as well as for Ueda Akinari’s Ugetsu monogatari, tales of a few pages each. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when the increasing influence of western culture brought about new trends in Japanese literature, the emerging modern literature was slow to pay attention to the criterion of length. The word chosen to name the new-born novel — shōsetsu — was made up of the two sino-Japanese characters for “short” (shō) and “story” or “apologue” (setsu), although the works in question, such as Futabatei Shimei’s programmatic Ukigumo (Floating Cloud), were often full-length novels. The specific word for “short story”, tanpen shōsetsu, was created later in response to the multitudinous translations of western short stories, by adding tanpen (“brief”) to shōsetsu. By the second quarter of the twentieth century, this new word was widely used.

9 The narrative short story in its most classic form did not disappear; many stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac B. Singer or Nina Berberova are, to my mind, absolutely “classic”.

10 For example, with the zuihitsu — the “following the brush” essay — a form illustrated in the thirteenth century by Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut) or in the fourteenth century by Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) and practiced by Akutagawa himself.

11 On this topic, see for example Eileen Baldeshwiler, “The Lyric Short Story: The Sketch of a History”, in The New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles E. May (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1994), pp. 231-41.

12 Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū, 19 vols (Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1954-1955), IV, pp. 44-46. There are no published translations that I know of.

13 Chekhov’s “modern” stories include The Bishop (1902) and The Bride (1903).

14 Brander Matthews proposed to use the term “short-story” to describe the story that does not only happen to be short, but uses brevity itself as the means of saying more. Brander Matthews, The Philosophy of the Short-story (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1901).

15 An abridged translation is available in Ruth Spack, The International Story: An Anthology with Guidelines for Reading and Writing about Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 74-77 (hereafter Spack). For the original Italian text, see Luigi Pirandello, Donna Mimma (Milan: Mondadori, 1951), pp. 66-70 (hereafter Pirandello).

16 The translation reads: “a bulky woman in deep mourning was hosted in — almost like a shapeless bundle” (Spack, p. 74). In a paragraph not translated: “il pesante fardello” is “the heavy bundle” (Pirandello, p. 66).

17 With the exception of Libertà (Liberty), a non-narrative tale, which describes the movements of a mob in a popular revolt in 1860. On this story see, for example, Leonardo Sciascia, La corda pazza (Turin: Einaudi, 1991), pp. 79-94; and Giuseppe Lo Castro, Giovanni Verga: una lettura critica, Saggi brevi di letteratura antica e moderna, 5 (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2001), pp. 139-40.

18 The classic short story Nedda was published in 1874; the (classic) cycles Primavera e altri racconti (Spring and Other Stories) in 1877; Vita dei campi (Life in the Fields) in 1880; and Novelle rusticane (Little Novels of Sicily) in 1883. Verga’s later novel Mastro Don Gesualdo (Master Gesualdo), published in 1889, has always been considered to be much less innovating than The House by the Medlar Tree. See Luigi Russo, Giovanni Verga (Bari: Laterza, 1941).