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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
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 form—the several stories we've been analyzing so far are all "modern," for instance—is 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.
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.")
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 time—character sketches, satires, gothic tales, rogue stories, adventure stories, sentimental tales—and the novel as we now know it gets under way in the 18th century.
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.
way to understand the art of the short story is to compare it more
explicitly to some of the early forms mentioned above—particularly, the
"fable" and the "tale."
Consider these definitions from the Bedford Glossary of Critical and
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.
this piece written by Somerset Maugham in 1933. In what ways does it
resemble a fable or a tale?
*Anthologized in Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 7th ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Eds. New York: Longman, 1999.
tale—think of "Rip Van Winkle" for instance—there's a more complex
dramatic situation and maybe a more developed conflict. There's the
more familiar story structure—a beginning, middle, and end—which 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.
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.
Although 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.
CHARACTER. 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 narrators).
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.
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.
MODERN SHORT STORY
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