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West Chester University

Fall 2001

Spring 2002

West Chester University

Fall 2002





Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Your Response and Mine
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Four Short Stories (Considerations)
  Genesis of the Short Story
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Bartleby - A Guided Reading
  Bartleby - Questions for Analysis
  A Few Notes on Herman Melville
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Five Writers Define the Short Story
  A Study Guide for the Fiction Exam
  Ars Poetica
  Poets Define the Art of Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  Supplemental Poems
  The Craft of Poetry - Imagery
  The Craft of Poetry - Sound
  The Forms of Poetry
  Revisiting Theme, Ambiguity, Irony, Symbol, and Parodox in Poetry
  Study Guide for the Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Aristotle's Tragic Hero
  Stepping Through Oedipus the King
  The Relevance of Oedipus Today
  Oedipus the King -- Study Questions
  Ibsen's Theater / A Doll House
  A Study Guide for the Drama Exam
  Study Guide for the Final Exam

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  A Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

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  LIT 165 Discussion List

~~ 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-like the several stories we've been analyzing 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.

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 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.

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 above -- particularly, the "fable" and the "tale.
Consider these definitions from the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.

The Glossary defines "tale" this way-

"A comparatively simple narrative, either fictitious or true, written or recounted orally in prose or verse. A tale often recounts a strange event, focusing on something or someone exotic, marvelous, or even supernatural. Tales may be attributable to a particular author, whether known or anonymous, or may simply be part of the lore of a given culture. Whatever their origin, tales tend to be relatively short narratives; nevertheless, the term is broad enough that both critics and authors have applied it to longer works ranging up to full-length novels.
Tale is sometimes used interchangeably with short story, or even as a general term encompassing the short story, among other literary forms, but modern critics typically distinguish between the two. The tale places more emphasis on actions and results than on character, which is the chief focus of the short story. Furthermore, tales are more casually constructed-and, consequently, far looser in terms of plot and structure-than short stories, which bear the mark of an author's careful and conscious fashioning.

Traditional "short tales" include The Thousand and One Nights (also called The Arabian Nights), an anonymous collection of Arabic tales from the Middle Ages such as the stories of Aladdin and Sinbad; The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1387); Jonathon Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704); Lady Shikibu Mruasaki's The Tale of Genji (c. 1001-1015); and a variety of folk tales, fairy tales, tall tales.

How is this different from the modern short story?

  • Tales are either "fictitious or true" but short stories are always fictitious
  • Tales can be "oral" whereas the modern short story is almost universally published on paper before being recited, if it is ever recited.
  • Tales were generally about "strange events, focusing on something exotic, marvelous, or even supernatural" but the modern short story tends to be realistic rather than fantastic.
  • Tales are sometimes anonymous, a part of the culture, whereas short stories are always the province of a particular, named author.
  • Tales place more emphasis on "action and results" whereas modern short stories are more concerned with character.
  • Tales may be loosely constructed in terms of plot, but modern short stories are carefully crafted.

The Glossary defines "fable" even more simply:

"A short, fictional (nonhistorical) prose or verse tale with a specific moral. As allegorical works, fables are told to illustrate a particular point or lesson, which is often explicitly expressed at the end of the tale via an epigram.

The term fable also has other connotations. It has been applied to lies, legends, unbelievable stories, and myths, but none of these are standard critical usages of the term.
Aesop's Fables are undoubtedly the most well known examples of this genre.

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 a tale?

W. Somerset Maugham (1933)

Death speaks: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

*Anthologized in Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 7th ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Eds. New York: Longman, 1999.


This piece illustrates that, in contrast to modern fiction, the language of the fable and the tale can be very plain and unelevated; the writer is not interested in using language artistically. The "plot" is loosely constructed; events are told in summary fashion, not rendered or recreated in vivid detail. This is not "verbal art." The storyteller's main concern is to focus our attention on the moral, the message, the lesson to be learned. The story single-mindedly builds directly towards that moral, which is sometimes directly stated at the end. If it isn't stated outright, it's implied. How would you put into words the "moral" of the brief story above? It might be something like, "No matter how hard you try, you can't escape death."

In the 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.

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.

PLOT. 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.
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 story distinguishes itself, ultimately from its early roots. Its "meticulous and deliberate craftsmanship" (Glossary) -- the way it handles plot, setting, narrative point of view, and especially character -- represent an artistic development, a progression beyond these earlier forms.






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