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Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Genesis of the Short Story ~~
The short story,
the genre we've been studying, grew out of a tradition that goes back all the
way to the beginnings of recorded civilization. But its modern formthe
several stories we've been analyzing so far are all "modern," for
instanceis relatively new in the larger scheme of things. Understanding
the roots of this modern genre, its genesis, can help you gain a greater appreciation
for the art of the short story as it exists for us today.
In its broadest
sense, stories have been with us since we've been keeping track of culture.
In the earliest days of recorded civilization, people were telling stories both
factual and fictional. Histories and mythical stories alike were passed down
and written down which helped form the core identity of different particular
cultural groups. Rich oral traditions flourished all over the world. There was
a giant cultural leap ahead with the invention of the alphabet and written language.
Epic narratives celebrating national heroes emerged as long as 4,000 years ago
-- the oldest surviving one being The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Greeks gave
us the Iliad and the Odyssey. And you can even see the short story
get under way in the form of fables and parables and short episodic "tales"
(like in the Satyricon, a raucous Greek work that's sometimes referred to as
the world's first "novel.")
By the Middle Ages,
short narratives had become versified; an Old English example is the incredible
tale of Beowulf.
A major leap forward happened in the 14th century when paper began to replace parchment. At this time short, secular tales began to be popular. Two notable examples are Giovanni Boccacio's Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. People were beginning to see literature as something pleasurable and entertaining, but the element of "moral instruction" was still a strong expectation. It had to be "sweet but instructive," as critics like St. Thomas Aquinas warned against "too much eloquence." The merely entertaining was too decadent, not to be trusted. But by the 18th century, that medieval distrust began to recede and prose forms began to develop which appealed to an increasingly sophisticated, well-educated and leisured middle class. The variety of prose forms became popular at this timecharacter sketches, satires, gothic tales, rogue stories, adventure stories, sentimental talesand the novel as we now know it gets under way in the 18th century.
As the Romantic
period flourished, it gave rise to a plethora of periodicals and periodical
literature. This stuff was amazingly popular, and the more sensational the better
(more about that when we study "Bartleby"). Melville, Hawthorne, and
Poe (three American representatives of early short story) all wrote for the
periodical presses. In France Maupassant (you may have read his oft anthologized
story "The Necklace") became popular and influential. Russia had Anton
Chekhov. All of these writers (and others) together helped create the modern
short story. And that's where our textbook arrives on the scene. All of these
writers are represented by the Bedford text.
Another way to
understand the art of the short story is to compare it more explicitly to some
of the early forms mentioned aboveparticularly, the "fable"
and the "tale."
defines "tale" this way-
How is this different from the modern short story?
The Glossary defines "fable" even more simply:
The point to notice here is that if you're looking for a story with a clear "moral" or a "lesson," you are probably thinking of the "fable" rather than the modern short story. A modern short story may have a "theme," or several "themes," but it won't be an explicit illustration of a single theme or moral or lesson. The point of the story is not to hammer home one clear "theme." Instead, a rich modern short story offers readers opportunities to make their own meanings, and there might be many themes.
Read this piece
written by Somerset Maugham in 1933. In what ways does it resemble a fable or
*Anthologized in Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 7th ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Eds. New York: Longman, 1999.
In the talethink
of "Rip Van Winkle" for instancethere's a more complex dramatic
situation and maybe a more developed conflict. There's the more familiar story
structurea beginning, middle, and endwhich may more closely resemble
a plot, with its pyramid of development (foreshadowing, crisis, turning point/climax,
and resolution). In the beginning of a tale, the teller sets the scene, introduces
the characters, gives us background details we may need. The middle of the tale
is signaled by a "complication" (some new conflict), and the end is
the resolution or the outcome of the conflict. This dramatic structure can sometimes
be very suspenseful much like a modern plot, and when you study some of the
more famous tales (The Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, etc), you can see
what the modern short story owes to these earlier forms.
The modern form
of the short story is more expansively descriptive, providing more complexities
of character, setting, and events. However, fables and tales do share some elements
with modern forms of fiction. As you look up at "The Appointment in Samarra,"
you probably recognize some of the basic elements of the modern story writer's
craft, even in this early form. There's plot, character, setting, point of view,
and even a dash of symbolism and irony here.
it's the barest meat on the bone, something is happening, and something consequential,
momentous, worthy of our attention, happens at the end. A man is trying to escape
Death, but he loses in the end. Death is destined to find him.
Although we don't get to know them well, we can relate to the people in this
story. Who doesn't try to avoid death? But the characters are broadly drawn
rather than individuals. They could be us, but they could be absolutely anyone.
They're "human." Like many tales, this one includes a a fantastic
element (a supernatural character)-Death (who also happens to be one of the
SETTING. Mentioned in the story is that it takes place in Bagdad, a worldly city, which I believe lends some meaning to the story. Even in sophisticated cities, people can't avoid death. All our sophistication can't save us from that fate.
POINT OF VIEW.
"Death" tells the story. The writer has created a narrator, named
him/her "Death," a personified abstraction. This created storyteller
is someone other than the author of the fable. This gets very artful and complex
in the modern short story. Writers play with point of view frequently and sometimes
to great effect.
SYMBOLISM. There's another level of meaning that the literal one. One possible symbol is the "fastest horse," who, fast as it is, can't outrun death. We can't escape death by any earthly means, even means we think of as invincible or superior. Today our "fastest horse" might be modern medicine, but as we all know, that too has its limitations. The story does encourage us to think metaphorically, to explore meanings on more than one literal level.
THE MODERN SHORT
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