The Study of the Short Story

The short story has Firmly established itself as a favourite form in modern literature. Its immense vogue is the result of many co-operating causes ; among them, the rush of modern life, which has made men impatient of those “great still books” (as Tennyson called them) over which readers were glad to linger in more leisurely ages, and the enormous development of the maga­zine, in which a large field is naturally afforded for tales complete in a single number. So popular, indeed, has the story become that extraordinary claims are at times put forth in its behalf. We are even told that it is the “coming form” of fiction, and that ulti­mately it will displace the novel entirely. Such claims, however, may be safely set aside. The story is not in the least likely to displace the novel for the very good reason that it cannot meet the novel on the novel’s own ground, or do precisely what the novel does.

It cannot, for instance, exhibit life in its variety and complexity, for this needs a larger canvas than the story provides. Nor, for the same reason, can it deal with the evolution of character, which as we have seen (pp. 148, 149), is one of the most important problems of modern prose fiction. Quite mani­festly, to cite extreme cases, the spiritual history of Levin in Anna Karenina, and the study of Tito Melema’s moral downfall in Romola, would be impossible within the framework of the short story. It is a matter of common experience that we have to live for some time with men and women and to see them in diffe­rent relationships and circumstances before we get really to know them ; and this, I take it, is as true of men and women in fiction as it is of men and women in actual life. But in the short story we meet people for a few minutes and see them in a few relationships and circumstances only ; and while it is indeed true that concentration of attention upon a particular aspect of character  may   result   in   a  very   powerful   impression, still, as a rule, such impression is not exactly comparable with that left by an ampler, more detailed, and more varied representation. Hence those characters in fiction who dwell in our imaginations as fully portrayed and completely alive, are, if I mistake not, generally characters in novels. So long as pepole are interested in the intri­cacy and manysidedness of life and in minute studies of character in the making or the unmaking, we may thus safely conclude that the novel will hold its own as the representative type of modern literary art. The tendency of the short story to run into sequences (as in Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books) is itself suggestive of a desire on the part of its writers to escape from its formal limitations. We may interpret such examples of emancipation as attempts to com­bine the brevity and concentration of the story with something of the sustained interest of the novel on the side either of character or of plot.

We are here concerned with the short story, therefore, not as a rival to, or as a substitute for, the novel, but as another kind of prose fiction, which has grown up beside the novel, and has now its recognised and important place in literature. Some inquiry into its objects and methods is for this reason desirable.
For working purposes we need a rough definition to start with, and that suggested by Edgar Allan Poe will do well enough : a short story is a prose narrative “requiring from half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” Putting the same idea into different phraseology, we may say that a short story is a story that can be easily read at a single sitting. Yet while the brevity thus specified is the most obvious characteristic of the kind of narrative in question, the evolution of the story into a definite type has been accompanied by the development also of some fairly well-marked characteristics of organism. It is now very commonly recognised that a true short story is not merely a novel on a reduced scale, or a digest in thirty pages of matter which would have been quite as effectively, or even more effectively, handled in three hundred. The older forms of story, indeed, exhibit in general a very imperfect differentiation of the growing type from the parent stock. Thus, for instance, Dickens’s Christmas Books are in organism simply novels, though novels-in-little. This statement of fact does not, of course, imply any adverse judgment upon these ever-delightful and, in their own way, quite admirable examples of the story-teller’s art. It is made only to illustrate the distinction, which since Dickens’s time has been emerging into greater and greater clearness, between the materials and method of the novel and the materials and method of the story. Even to-day we meet with innumerable indeterminate productions the place of which is on the borderline between the two classes of fiction. But, on the whole, the increasing popularity of the story has brought with it an increasing sense that considerations of art involve vari­ous specific requirements of matter and treatment. In other words, as the story differs from the novel in length, so it must of neces­sity differ from it in motive, plan, and structure.
Of such requirements the first may be very easily formulated. The subject of a story must be one that can be adequately and effectively developed within the prescribed limits. On this point the reader’s own feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction will pro­vide a sufficient test. Whatever its particular theme and object, a story should leave us with the conviction that, even if nothing would have been lost, at least nothing would have been gained, by further elaboration. It should impress us as absolutely clear in outline, well proportioned, full enough for the purpose yet without the slightest suggestion of crowding, and within its own frame­work complete.
This first principle of composition is not to be interpreted too narrowly. I do not mean that a story must necessarily be confined to a single incident or moment. A story may be little more than an anecdote worked up into literary form, and its success may depend entirely upon the skill shown in the telling. It may deal with some one phase of character or experience, or with a detached critical scene. But, on the other hand, it may cover a wider field of time and involve a larger sequence of events than many novels. Yet even in these last-named cases the principle before us will still be exemplified. In Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, for example, we have the tale of a life-time; yet as even the least critical reader will instinctively feel, the effect is greatly enhanced by that concentration of interest which inevitably results when such a subject is put into so small a space, and in parti­cular, by the fact that no extraneous matter is allowed to intrude between the moment of Rip’s falling asleep and that of his wak­ing. Again, to take a very different illustration, Maupassant’s grim little masterpiece, La Parure, contains the long-drawn-out tragedy of many years ; yet once more an enormous artistic gain is achieved by the focusing of attention throughout upon the single motive on which the story turns, and by the rigorous exclusion of everything not directly connected with it. When, therefore, we insist that the subject of a short story must be one that can be adequately and effectively handled within the limits of the short story, we must not forget that in this, as in all other forms of art, the question of subject is vitally bound up with that of treatment.
A second fundamental principle of composition thus comes to light—that of unity ; under which head we include unity of motive, of purpose, of action, and, in addition (in regard to results), unity of impression. It may be laid down as a rule to which, so far as I see, there can be no exception, that a short story must contain one and only one informing idea, and that this idea must be worked out to its logical conclusion with absolute singleness of aim and directness of method. It is this essential kind of unity which will be found to characterise every really good short story, whether it belong to the highly concentrated type, like Hawthorne’s Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado and Stevenson’s The Sieur de Maletroit’s Door ; or the highly expanded type, like Maupassant’s La Parure ; or to any type (like, say, Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp) the place of which is somewhere between the two extremes. In the case of the novel, so many different elements may be woven into the texture that it may be difficult to detect any central organising principle, while at times analysis may reveal two or more quite distinct pivots of inte­rest. No such scattering of attention can be permitted in the story. Here, on the contrary, the germinal idea must be perfectly clear and the interest arising out of it must never be complicated by any other consideration. Singleness of aim and singleness of effect are, there­fore, the two great canons by which we have to try the value of a short story as a piece of art.
Attainment of this unity is one of the principal difficulties of short story writing; and in passing it may be noted that it is largely because the art of the story is so much more exacting than that of the novel that many critics rate it higher than the novel, and that perfection of workmanship in it—the complete adaptation of means to end—gives peculiar æsthetic pleasure to the thought­ful reader. As Poe said : “A skilful literary artist…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 this precon­ceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this 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.”1 This must, of course, be taken as a counsel of perfection ; but it is useful as indicating that theoretic standard of excellence which we shall do well to keep in view. By reason of its brevity and concentration, the short story manifestly demands particular care in all the details of composition. Far more than in the novel, everything super­fluous and redundant must be omitted, the proper perspective must be maintained, the emphasis justly distributed, the neces­sary values given to the successive movements of the narrative, and the separate parts strictly subordinated to the whole. Tech­nical defects in the story, it should be noted, stand out with much greater clearness than the same defects in the novel ; Scott’s clumsiness in getting his plots started, for instance, while bad enough in Waverley, nearly ruins My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror. At the same time, it is obviously impossible to lay down any abstract rules for construction. Here, as always, method must ultimately depend upon matter and purpose. A story may, for example, contain little or no dialogue, or it may be nearly all dialogue ; and while in the great majority of cases the amount of description introduced must be small, occasionally, as in Cable’s Old Creole Days and Stevenson’s Island Night’s Entertainments, local colour is an essential feature and the expansion of descrip­tion is therefore fully justified. The great principle of all true art is thus again applicable ; details can be rightly estimated only be reference to the total design.
In regard to the nature of the germinal idea, again, generalisation is equally out of the question. Provided that the elementary conditions which have been emphasised are fulfilled, a story may deal with any kind of motive and material. In Washington Irving’s The Stout Gentleman a whimsical fancy is worked out with admirable skill, and the very slightness of the substance is an element in the impression produced. Poe’s Gold Bug turns on a puzzle ; his Mystery of Marie Roget aims at sensation ; his Purloined Letter is a “tale of ratiocination”; his Masque of the Red Death, pure impressionism, or (in his own classification) a “tale of effect.” Hawthorne’s Wakefield, with its attempt to reconstruct a character on the basis of a bare fact, is, like Gogol’s marvellous Madman’s Diary, and Stevenson’s Olalla, an excursion into morbid psychology ; the Minister’s Veil is a piece of mysticism ; The Great Stone Face is an allegory ; The Maypole of Merry Mount and The Grey Champion roughly resem­ble Riehl’s Kulturgeschichtliche Novellen and Strindberg’s Svenska Oden och Aventry, in being primarily representative pictures of the past. To the last class the wonderful little story, When Father brought Home the Lamp, of the Finnish novelist Aho, may also be said to belong. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger and Aldrich’s Marjorie Daw are contrived expressly for the dramatic surprise of their endings—in the one case the conun­drum, in the other, the sudden shock of disenchantment. Stevenson’s Bottle Imp is pure fantasy. In Tolstoi’s Polushka the whole interest hinges on the workings of the moujik’s mind, while many of the same writer’s later tales are either expanded anecdotes illustrative of the Russian peasantry, or moral and reli­gious parables. These are examples, which I cite as they occur to me, and wholly for the purpose of suggesting the immense range— the practically unlimited range—of the short story in respect of theme. A dramatic incident or situation ; a telling scene ; a closely co-ordinated series of events ; a phase of character ; a bit of experience ; an aspect of life ; a moral problem—any one of these, and innumerable other motives which might be added to the list, may be made the nucleus of a thoroughly satisfactory story.
A glance at the actual practice of two accomplished masters of the art of the story may at this point be interesting. Haw­thorne’s Note Books contain many suggestions for stories, and they show us that in his case the first conception—the germinal idea, as I have called it—came to him generally in the form, not of an incident or of a plot, but of a detached situation, or of a particular manifestation of character, or of an abstract thought which had to be put into concrete shape. Considering the peculiar character of Hawthorne‘s genius we are certainly not surprised to find that with him the starting-point of a story was often some curious fancy or speculation regarding the obscurer workings of motive and feeling. The strange tale already mentioned— Wakefield—is an instance, and I will give another. In the American Note Books for 1840 there is an entry which runs : “A person to be the death of his beloved in trying to raise her to a more than mortal loveli­ness ; yet this should be a comfort to him for having aimed so high and holily.” This was the origin of The Birthmark. The very emphatic declaring of Stevenson concerning the three great types of story, is equally illuminating. I quote from a conversation which he once had on the subject with Mr. Graham Balfour : “There are, so far as I know, three ways, and three ways only, of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly—you must bear with me while I try to make this clear’—(here he made a gesture with his hand as if he were trying to shape something and give it outline and form)—’you may take a certain atmosphere, and get actions and persons to realise it. I’ll give you an example—The Merry Men. There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland,  and I  gradually developed  the  story to express the sentiment with which that coast affected me.’ “ Here, even if the classification given is not quite so final as Stevenson thought, we have a most useful clue in our study of the story. Our first business will always be to disengage the initial conception and foundation interest ; and in our search for this we shall be greatly helped by keeping in mind the distinction here brought out between the story of plot, the story of character, and (in a larger sense than Stevenson himself perhaps attached to the term) the story of impression.
It is scarcely necessary to add that in the foregoing brief discussion of the short story I have taken no account of the ele­ments which enter into its composition. Such elements are the same as those which constitute the raw materials of the novel, and the canons by which they are to be evaluated are the canons which have already been considered at length in our chapter on prose fiction in general. We have here been concerned only with the characteristics and requirements of the short story as a specific form of literary art, having, like every other specific form of art, its own organism and its own laws.
The reader does not need any introduction to the best English and American story-writers. He will be well advised, however, if he carries his studies farther afield, for much of the finest work in the story has been done by the great continental masters. The list of these is a long one ; but special mention may perhaps be made of Mérimée, Gautier, Daudet, and Maupassant among the French ; of Paul Heyse, who holds the pre-eminent place among the Germans ; and of Pushkin, Tolstoi, Gorki, and Chekhov among the Russians. As always in such cases, the wider the range of our interest, the more opportunity we get for a comparison of essen­tial differences, personal and racial, in matter, method, and aims.

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