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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)
POE and the Art of “The Story of an Hour”
EDGAR ALLEN POE
Were we called upon however to designate that class of composition which, next to such a [lyric] poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius-should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion-we should speak of the prose tale, as Mr. Hawthorne has here exemplified. We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprive itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is a the writer's control. There are no external or extrinsic influences-resulting from weariness or interruption.
A skilfull literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents-he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing the preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of the effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.
Poe equates the short story with poetry and implies that like poetry it’s a form that demands “high genius.” Like most poetry it can be read in a short space of time—from ½ to 2 hours. Because it can be read in its entirety in this short space of time, readers can get the benefit of the full force of its effect—no distractions intervene which would detract from this effect. The whole point of a short story is to make the reader feel the EFFECT of the tale. The point of the story is not what happens, not who it happens to, but its ability to evoke an effect on the reader. Everything in the story has to contribute to bringing out this single, unifying effect, or the art form will fail. Poe acknowledges that readers have to approach the story with a “kindred art”—as readers we have to use as much imagination as the writer if we are to feel the effect. If writers are artistic in creating the tale, and readers are sensitive in re-creating the tale in their imagination, then the story acts as a kind of “conduit”—like a battery that’s charged and ready to go—plug it into a reader and turn it on.
Notice how Poe insists on the unity of effect—everything in a short story has to contribute; it’s an intricate circuit; if there’s a word or a sentence or an image or an incident that isn’t connected the energy just dissipates and light fades out or goes out.
The Story of an Hour
Chopin brings us the experience of a very conventional, seemingly happily married woman of her era. But this woman’s responses to the death of her husband are anything but conventional. The reader is left with a sense of shock at her behavior, and a sense of irony at the end, and many, many questions. (Should a work of art raise questions or answer them?)
Because the artistic effect of this story is to raise troubling questions (especially for Victorian audiences), it’s a pretty subversive story. Another writer who wrote in a similar vein was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was a similar kind of shocker. These authors, despite their accomplishments, met with difficulty, indifference and even hostility in their day. These are subversive stories. They undercut popular assumptions about love and marriage. The “happily ever after” ending is here. By conventional standards, Louise Mallard should have completely fallen apart at the news of her husband’s death. The ideal Victorian woman was notoriously hysterical and tiny and “weak.” These were considered highly feminine characteristics. That’s why Freud came along and had a field day. But this woman breaks the mold; she’s subversive, different, expressing alternative emotions that are unexpected, out of the ordinary, radical even. In a backhanded, subtle way, the story even makes fun of the doctors, who have no clue at the end of the story; they’re just totally wrong. And of course, they would have been men. So between Louise’s admonition that she only loved her husband sometimes and that her life with him was a big bore, and the fact that these doctors haven’t got a clue what’s really at the heart of her “illness,” that supreme male authority is really brought into question.
It’s not a flattering portrait of marriage; it’s an uncomfortable portrait of marriage and male authority. Men and women who wanted to maintain the status quo didn’t like this kind of thing. It exposed something they’d rather keep hidden, or not think about, something they’d rather repress. But Kate Chopin still found her audience. Why? Because there’s too much human truth expressed here for it to just go away because some people didn’t want to hear that truth. This story resonates even today.
The truth is the revelation that comes to Louise Mallard as she looks out the window (why won’t Eveline’s come as she looks out the window?). Love cannot survive inequality; freedom is the supreme fulfillment. Mrs. Mallard has been suffering as a result of her “happy” marriage but she can’t admit it to herself. She has the experience but not the conscious knowledge yet. She’s eaten the apple but won’t swallow. Why would she have kept these thoughts repressed? Why can’t she keep them repressed any longer?
In just a few pages Chopin delivers this theme powerfully, and she does it by creating an effect. Her character undergoes a profound change and we find it believable. Plot, character development, point of view, imagery, symbolism, irony—they’re all working to bring out the shock of this character’s revelation. In part it’s the economy, the brevity, with which Chopin is able to achieve this effect which really makes this story stand out for me. So short and so meaningful.
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