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The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925

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Florence Goyet

Part I: Structure

5. Conclusion to Part I

Texte intégral

1The techniques we just reviewed combine to make the classic short story’s structure an efficient whole. Each of the characters’ traits is brought to its ultimate intensity by means of paroxysm; thus making the character an ideal representative of his type. Because this makes the character abstract, the short story can easily and rapidly incorporate him in a strong structure. Similarly, because the structure — the staging of the situation — prevails over the study of individuals, reliance on a type is not a handicap, and the reader’s entrance into the story can be accelerated by the use of preconstructed material. Paroxystic characterisation, a structure built on tension, and techniques of acceleration are, therefore, all closely linked. They are not juxtaposed traits, but interlocking folds of a single, unique phenomenon. It is their powerful convergence that makes the classic short story’s format so efficient.

Hypotyposis and schematisation

2Despite the necessity of these techniques, they can still appear to be somewhat schematic. How is it that the classic short story is rarely criticised for this schematization? Why do readers never see the constantly exaggerated aggrandisement of the characters and why are they never made uneasy by this overwhelming action that sets one extreme inexorably in opposition to another? There would seem to be three reasons for this.

3The first is that, at the end of the nineteenth century as opposed to the beginning, there were few exceptional characters, either very good or very bad. E. T. A. Hoffmann, Théophile Gautier and Edgar Allen Poe were deceased, and the heroes of Goethe’s Novelle were in the past. The primary character at the end of the century was essentially mediocre: an offspring of Gogol’s “mal’enkii chelovek” (“the little man”) who haunts not only Russian literature but also that of the rest of the world. The working man in Maupassant, Verga or O. Henry’s short stories, the lacklustre heroes of Akutagawa or Joyce: these are the great battalions of heroes at the end of the century. Regular citizens without any pretence, they are actually men of little substance. It is the ordinariness of their appearance that hides the essential fact: they are paragons of mediocrity.

4The second reason, perhaps, is that very often the classic short story focuses on a subject that already exists socially and of which the reader already has notions, but which has never been represented in literature. As we have seen, during that period, the character types are not often well-known literary types. On the contrary, the short story explores the social world, and readers and critics alike have been impressed, with reason, by the great variety of characters. This hides the fact that the reader already has preconceived ideas of these “new” characters, and that the classic short story will do no more than develop (along familiar lines) what is already known.

  • 1 For example, Sean O’Faolain sees in this evocative power the great “charm” or “alchemy” of Alphone (...)
  • 2 This is often stressed by readers and critics. See for example Luigi Capuana on Verga’s characters (...)

5But the main reason seems to me to be that the structure itself is hidden by one of the genre’s essential traits: its evocative strength. The sharpness of the antithetical tensions is hidden by descriptions that paint portraits of characters and the setting they are placed in with an extraordinary vividness1 What gives the masterpieces of the genre their greatness is the particularly effective use of what ancient rhetoric called “hypotyposis”: a lively and striking description, a picture through which the description seems to make us see rather than conceive2 If we turn to the numerous mediocre short stories found in the newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the structure and the exaggerated treatment of material are obvious. It is the evocative power of the great stylists that gives the genre its value.

  • 3 James recalls his own hatred of allegory in his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. “[Allegory] is a (...)
  • 4 The necessity of this concrete form is also stressed by Tsutsui Yasutaka (one of the very few Japa (...)

6It is this balance of abstract and concrete, of powerful descriptions and schematic material, which distinguishes the short story from allegory or the mediaeval exemplum.3 Abstract truths are established through the tangible flesh of the plot and its characters.4 The lesson is not explicit but rather submerged in the mass of concrete details. In contrast to the ideological novel, the short story usually provides the definition of characters “by extension” — through the enumeration of characteristic traits — and not “by comprehension”, through concepts. The strong structure helps the reader’s immediate comprehension of what is at stake — and far from impeding his or her pleasure (as it does in the mediocre stories), this schema enhances it.

Short stories, sensational news items and serials

  • 5 Fait-divers was a genre in its own right at the turn of the century. In every newspaper, the reade (...)
  • 6 Of course, this is as true now as it was in the nineteenth century; see, for example, the recent h (...)
  • 7 See Auclair (1982), pp. 19-26 and 90-104.

7Hypotyposis is also what distinguishes the short story from the genres it rubbed shoulders with in fin de siècle newspapers: the serial and the sensational news item (le fait-divers). The three genres exist in and through the media, to which they largely contributed, even giving to the European press at the end of the century its specific stamp. Like the short story, the sensational news item presents narrative elements carried to their extreme; it deals with events that transgress nature or the normal order of the world.5 Like the short story, it presents without fail an antithetical tension, in the particularly lucid form of the paradox. Le fait-divers always deals with events such as sisters abused by their brother, or children killed by their mother: radical incompatibilities, contrasting in a single structure extremes which should never come into contact.6 The protagonists — in the short story as in the sensational headline — are reduced to a few sharply defined traits, and never leave their “actantial” role except to embrace the diametrically opposite role, the one which is essentially rendered impossible by definition (the respectable mother who is also a murderer; the love for her son that makes the mother prostitute).7 Again like the short story, the sensational news item has to anchor its subject matter in the most current daily events: these descriptions take up a great deal of the article, as well as the geographic localization (“In Paris…”).

  • 8 Charles Grivel surveys the history of novels in France between 1870 and 1880, and his study is in (...)
  • 9 See Thiesse (2000), pp. 19-26 and 90-104; and the conclusion to Grivel (1973).

8Is, then, the short story a branch of popular literature, functioning along the same lines? To get a clearer idea we must examine another comparison: the serialised novel.8 Here again, several similarities can be seen. The serial also demands an oxymoronic tension (titles include Chaste and Sullied or Countess and Beggar). Again, it relies on material already familiar to the reader, on pre-existing formulas and characters, and is sold in more “everyday” places that are passed by the reader on a daily basis (news stands, railway stations and street vendors instead of bookstores). Its value comes from the familiar not the new.9 However, whereas the serial barely “dresses up” familiar situations and characters, the short story, on the contrary, gives the impression of something new through the accumulation of striking and concrete details and through the choice of unexpected scenarios. In addition, whereas popular novels deal not only with familiar characters, but also always with the same characters, the short story explores the entire social field in order to introduce ordinary people and pariahs, often disdained by previous literature. The short story, like the serial, is dependent on the reader’s pre-existent representations; but nonetheless it does not depend on worn-out subjects.

  • 10 Thiesse (2000), p. 55.

9By resorting to the same formulas as serials or sensational news items, the short story can hasten the reader’s introduction to the fiction. The antithetical tension is present in the short story because of its powerful ability to create a structure strong enough to satisfy the “occasional” reader, as discussed by Anne-Marie Thiesse, whose reading implies “a certain kind of inattention”.10 The serial gets the attention of readers who may be inadequately prepared for the intellectual exercise of reading. The short story, on the other hand, will give to readers who are used to more complex reading the peculiar pleasure of an immediate entry into the fictional world.

The short story: privileged object of narratology

  • 11 As Lohafer puts it: the short story was “the favorite ‘demo’ narrative form for New Criticism”. Su (...)
  • 12 Barthes, for example, justifies his choice of text as follows: “I needed a very short text to be a (...)
  • 13 The “Groupe d’Entrevernes” reveals a series of secondary isotopisms (the “semiotic isotopisms”) us (...)

10It is not difficult to see why formalist critics — Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov and Roland Barthes, for example — have been drawn to analysing short stories.11 Admittedly, the champions of formalism have often declared that they only turned to short stories for reasons of pure and simple convenience: in order to understand how a complete text functions, a short text was thought to be an easier choice.12 But that choice has been much more successful than expected, or, in other words, the conclusions they drew are subordinate to the form itself. They did not describe the function of “all” narration, as they claimed; what they have described in detail is the structure of the short story. What these critics see as the essential role of isotopisms, for example, is only essential because the texts they are looking at are short stories, which use antithetical tension as their basic frame.13

  • 14 I am of course talking of the great novels here; there is not much interest in comparing successfu (...)

11Similar work on a novel is impossible. The reason is not that the length of a novel would overwhelm the signifying oppositions; it is that the effective novel renounces this structure as too simple, rejects the too-clear precision, the light without shade. The novel patiently constructs more complex truths, just as it carefully builds its characters instead of letting them spring fully equipped into the mind of the reader.14 We have seen an example of this in the work that led Henry James from the short story to his novel The Ambassadors.

  • 15 M. M. Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. by Michael Holqu (...)
  • 16 Romano Luperini, Verga: l’ideologia, le strutture narrative, il “caso” critico (Lecce: Millela, 19 (...)

12Indeed, a second reason for the natural attraction of semiotic analysis towards the short story rests in the treatment of character. The short story can be said to belong to what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “epic” as opposed to the “novelistic” side of literature.15 The character in a novel is not summed up by his role, he has what Bakhtin calls a “personality” that is more than the sum of his traits; whereas the character in a short story seems to be defined by the few traits attributed to him. This is reminiscent of the “actantial schemas” of semiotic analysis: as Romano Luperini clearly saw, short story characters are not more than their actantial role, and were perfect material for the discovery of this critical tool.16

  • 17 This is perhaps the essential difference between the classic short story and what I have called th (...)
  • 18 Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Corn (...)

13The classic short story always chooses situation over characters.17 One can certainly defend this, like Genette who cites Aristotle in defence of the absence of the character.18 I do not wish to discuss this position here, but want simply to note that such an analysis is particularly suited to short stories. When she was teaching creative writing, Flannery O’Connor demanded of her students a very detailed study of the summaries of short stories: for one whole year her students were only permitted a maximum of four lines in which to draw their characters. The emotion of the classic short story is contained in the idea and the situation, not in the characters or the shades of meaning.

  • 19 See Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, in Charles E. May, The New Short Story Theories (...)
  • 20 See Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. by Benjamin Sher (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive P (...)

14Structure has often appeared to be the tangible point at which one could hope to define the genre of the short story. Poe’s famous comments on Nathaniel Hawthorne tried to characterise the short story through this expedient: the singleness of effect, obtained by the convergence of absolutely all the effects.19 The Russian Formalists also defined the short story by way of its composition (contradictions, parallels, contrasts, etc), while, as we saw in Chapter Two, Ludwig Tieck defined the genre by the presence of a narrative reversal, the Wendepunkt.20

15However, even if we can bring to light an in-depth series of constants, that does not necessarily mean that they contain the key to the genre. It seems to me that the main thing we should keep in mind is the congruence of means, and the adequation to an effect. The features we have described in this section are not “laws”; it could be that a particular short story may not characterise its material in any extreme fashion, that it may not have a strong structure, nor rely on the reader’s preconceptions. Yet, during the period we are studying, almost all the short stories are constructed in this way. Even for writers as subtle as James or Chekhov, this structure guarantees that effective economy of means that is so often praised in the genre. But these techniques are no more than means, technical solutions, and we need to go further, and analyse their effect. Our task in Part III will be to show how the use of these means changes the fundamental relationship between the reader and the author on the one hand, and between the reader and the characters on the other. But first, we must examine the media through which these texts were conveyed to their readers.

Notes

1 For example, Sean O’Faolain sees in this evocative power the great “charm” or “alchemy” of Alphone Daudet’s stories: “Touch upon touch does it. The fine day, his nook in the rocks where he lies like a lizard and listens to the pines, his key put into the cat’s hole […] It is the details that do it”. However, he takes pain to distinguish this from mere description: “but is the heart which remembers that really does it”. Sean O’Faolain, The Short Story (Cork: Mercier, 1948), p. 90. Frank O’Connor argues that “the surface of a great short story is like a sponge; it sucks up hundreds of impressions that have nothing whatever to do with the anecdote”. A contrario, he judges severely most of Maupassant’s stories where “style is sacrificed to anecdote”. Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1963), p. 66.

2 This is often stressed by readers and critics. See for example Luigi Capuana on Verga’s characters: we have the feeling we have “seen them in reality” and not read about them; Luigi Capuana, Verga e D’Annunzio (Bologna: Cappelli, 1972), p. 24 and p. 74. Clare Hanson argues that the short story is more concerned with vision than with feeling; Clare Hanson, Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), p. 124. O’Faolain (1948) acknowledges that “one does really feel, smell and see the poorhouse “, in Ernst Ahlgren’s Mother Malena’s Hen (p. 209).

3 James recalls his own hatred of allegory in his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. “[Allegory] is apt to spoil two good things — a story and a moral, a meaning and a form”. Henry James, Hawthorne (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 62. For more on the mediaeval exemplum, see André Sempoux, La Nouvelle, in Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental, 9 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009); and Hans-Jörg Neushafer, Boccaccio und der Beginn der Novelle: Strukturen der Kurzerzählung auf der Schwelle zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit (Munich: Fink, 1983).

4 The necessity of this concrete form is also stressed by Tsutsui Yasutaka (one of the very few Japanese critics to have written on the short story after the lively discussion of the form in the literary journals — especially Bungakkai — in the early 1980s). Tsutsui argues that the short story demands an organic adequation to the subject and the invention of new forms. Tsutsui Yasutaka, Tanpen shōsetsu kōgi (Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1990), pp. 157-67.

5 Fait-divers was a genre in its own right at the turn of the century. In every newspaper, the reader was (and still is) sure to find at least one, sometimes two in the tabloids. See Roland Barthes’ chapter “Structure of the Fait-Divers”, in his Critical Essays, trans. by Richard Howard (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972), pp. 185-96; and Georges Auclair, Le Mana quotidien: structures et fonctions de la chronique des faits divers (Paris: Anthropos, 1982). More recently, see also Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu, Petits récits des désordres ordinaires: les faits divers dans la presse française des débuts de la IIIe République à la Grande Guerre (Paris: S. Arslan, 2004).

6 Of course, this is as true now as it was in the nineteenth century; see, for example, the recent headline in Le Figaro (10 December 2012): “Woman prostitutes herself in order to pay for her autistic son’s medical treatment” (translation ours).

7 See Auclair (1982), pp. 19-26 and 90-104.

8 Charles Grivel surveys the history of novels in France between 1870 and 1880, and his study is in a large part made up of popular novels. Charles Grivel, Production de l’intérêt romanesque (The Hague: Mouton, 1973). For a general analysis of serials see the excellent Anne-Marie Thiesse, Le Roman du quotidien (Paris: Le Seuil, “Points”, 2000).

9 See Thiesse (2000), pp. 19-26 and 90-104; and the conclusion to Grivel (1973).

10 Thiesse (2000), p. 55.

11 As Lohafer puts it: the short story was “the favorite ‘demo’ narrative form for New Criticism”. Susan Lohafer, Introduction, in The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story, ed. by Rick Feddersen, Susan Lohafer, Barbara Lounsberry and Mary Rohrberger (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1998), p. ix.

12 Barthes, for example, justifies his choice of text as follows: “I needed a very short text to be able to master entirely the signifying surface…” Roland Barthes, “Textual Analysis of a Tale By Edgar Poe”, Poe Studies, 10:1 (1977), 1-12. See also Gérard Genot and Paul Larivaille, Etude du Novellino (Paris: Presses de l’Université Nanterre, 1985); and Tzvetan Todorov, Grammaire du Décaméron (The Hague: Mouton, 1969), pp. 11-13.

13 The “Groupe d’Entrevernes” reveals a series of secondary isotopisms (the “semiotic isotopisms”) used within a main isotopism (“semantic isotopism”). This is putting to light the secondary antithetic tensions that, as we have seen, reinforce and stabilise the principal tension.

14 I am of course talking of the great novels here; there is not much interest in comparing successful short stories with mediocre novels. Less successful novels, moreover, have a strong tendency to work with the usual tools of the short story (if we think of Eugene Sue or of the popular novel). Admittedly, Genot tried to apply the principles of narratological analysis to a novel. But that novel was Pinocchio, which cannot be considered far from popular literature, nor of very great complexity. Gérard Genot, Analyse structurelle de ‘Pinocchio’ (Pescia: Fondazione Nazionale Carlo Collodi, 1970).

15 M. M. Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 4-40.

16 Romano Luperini, Verga: l’ideologia, le strutture narrative, il “caso” critico (Lecce: Millela, 1982).

17 This is perhaps the essential difference between the classic short story and what I have called the “modern” short story, practiced from 1900 onwards, or the “epiphanic” short story, as discussed by Mary Rohrberger and other Anglophone critics. See Mary Rohrberger, Hawthorne and the Modern Short Story (The Hague: Mouton, 1966); also “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. 1-13. The latter abandons the anecdote, and, with it, that very precise organization and the somewhat stifling effectiveness of the genre.

18 Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980). Vincent Descombes clearly defines the limits of narratology. Among others, he shows that Genette’s analyses of Proust were not able to account for the novelistic character of À la recherche du temps perdu. See in particular the analysis of Genette’s summary of the novel, a summary which Descombes — who is also relying on Aristotle — sees as far too simple, schematic and ultimately wrong. Vincent Descombes, Proust: Philosophy of a Novel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

19 See Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, in Charles E. May, The New Short Story Theories (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1994), pp. 59-64, and his essay “The Philosophy of Composition”, pp. 67-69.

20 See Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. by Benjamin Sher (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), pp. 52-70; and Ludwig Tieck, Ludwig Tieck’s Schriften (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1828-55), XI, p. lxxxvi.

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