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Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
~~ NOTES ON THE ART OF FICTION ~~
Forms of Fiction:
APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA*
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.
Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 7th ed. X.J.
Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Eds. New York: Longman, 1999.
Although they share some of the same elements of modern fiction, the art of the fable and even that of the tale, which can be longer and slightly more involved, is quite different from the art of modern short stories. 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. 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?
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 fables and tales, you can see what the modern short story owes to these earlier forms.
Modern forms of fiction are more expansively descriptive, providing more complexities of character, setting, and events. But fables and tales do share some elements with modern forms of fiction. As you look up at "The Appointment in Samarra," you probably recognize elements of the modern story even in this early form.
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.
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.
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.
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