What is a Short Story?

Reading Contemporary Fiction
Lecture 3
The Short Story
Semester 1, 2008
David Sornig
Fort/Da - What is a Short Story?
I wouldn’t be the first person to begin a lecture on the form of the short story
with the not so clever observation that a short story is exactly what it says it
is: a story that is short.
But how short can a story be? It might be argued that shortest story in the
world is told in childhood. In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ Sigmund Freud
recounts the incident of his grandchild playing with a toy on a string who
throws it over the side of its pram and utters the German word ‘fort’ (gone)
and then reels it in and exclaims ‘Da!’ (Here).
This sense of progression – gone and here – is perhaps the underlying
structure of all stories. Ulysses leaves to fight the Trojan wars and he
returns years later to reclaim his home and wife. The narrator of Peter
Carey’s short story ‘War Crimes’ moves from an absence of knowledge
(fort) about the true reason for his profits being siphoned off, to its presence
Narrative – Recounting presence
and absence
If all narratives are about recounting presence and
absence in one form or another then to define the short
story we need to think about what distinguishes it from
other story-telling forms. This is not such a simple task.
As Michael Wilding says in this week’s reading:
“The short story is in dialogue with novels. Poems,
plays, essays; it is not sealed off from other genres”
The short story and the novel
So, we are caught in a position of knowing that there is a form of literary
writing identifiable as a short story but not really knowing how to distinguish
it from other forms.
We could say that the short story is a piece of prose fiction writing that runs
from anywhere between 500 and 10,000 words. Beyond this we might say
that we are in the territory of the novella, and eventually the novel. Like all
numerical definitions these are not absolute.
In many formal aspects the short story is most obviously linked to the novel.
US critic Suzanne Ferguson argues that the “main formal characteristics of
the modern novel and the modern short story are the same.”
Evolution of the short story: tales
and sketches
The literary form of the short story has evolved over the
last 150 years or so.
According to Robert Marler it became distinct from the
‘tale’ in the 1850s when the tales being published in
periodicals were receiving poor critical reception.
These tales and sketches were seen as being
exceedingly didactic, sentimental and poorly written.
Stories that found critical praise were those which
contained their moralizing within the work of plot and
characterization, rather than authorial intervention.
Evolution of the short story: Poe
and the ‘single effect’
The short story grows around the concept of the reader who is able to read the story
in a unified single sitting – this is in opposition to the novel in which the reader is in
different states of mind at each sitting
The writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe set the critical parameters for the short story in
his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Twice Told Tales’. He described short stories as:
‘short prose narrative requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in perusal.’
Allied with this idealized brevity is the concept of what Poe calls the ‘single effect’.
These aspects of the short story are critically encouraged together with the shift
toward realism in literary fiction.
From realism to modernism
Part of the realism that comes to increasingly pervade the short story toward the end of the 19th
century is psychological realism.
The characters in James Joyce’s stories for example in ‘Dubliners’ written around the turn of the
century still move from ignorance to knowledge but increasingly do so in an idiom that speaks to
the development of the concept of the modern subject – fragmented and inconclusive with old
certainties breaking down.
US critic William Peden writes that the short story retains these characteristics: ‘brief, elliptical,
and unwinking, tends to ask questions rather than to suggest answers, to show rather than
attempt to solve.’
Both the development of the modern psychological, individual and bourgeois subject, and the
deliberate coyness of the short story in arriving at solid conclusions are apt to the fragmentation
associated with the coming of 20th century modernism – where reality is perceived as a cauldron
of cultural and phenomenological fragments.
The great short story writers, those whose work enters into the canon of modernist literature
emerge in this era. We find writers like James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, Anton
Chekhov and later Ernest Hemingway.
Modernism and Impressionism
Writing of the ‘modern’ or ‘impressionistic’ short story and novel of the early 20th
century US critic Susan C. Ferguson identifies the following features in it:
Limitation and foregrounding of point of view
Emphasis on presentation of sensation and inner experience
The deletion or transformation of several elements of the traditional plot
Increasing reliance on metaphor and metonymy in the presentation of events and existents
Rejection of chronological time ordering
Formal and stylistic economy
The foregrounding of style
Ferguson differentiates the short story from longer fiction forms along the lines of the
influence of a form of art more usually associated with the movement in the visual
arts known as impressionism.
Impressionism in Visual Art: Monet
Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)
1873 (210 Kb); Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm (19 x 24 3/8"); Musee Marmottan, Paris
Impressionism and Literature
JA Cuddon in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory writes
that the impressionists were
‘concerned with the transitory effects of light, and they wished to depict the
fleeting impression from a subjective point of view. They were not interested in a
precise representation; the resulting impression depended on the impression of
the spectator’
Impressionism as a visual art movement was concerned not with the kind of
photographic realism that had come to dominate European painting but to portray
visual reality that accurately recorded the experienced effect of light and colour.
In this sense it informed the literary form of impressionism which also foregrounds an
approach to representation which favours the apprehension of ‘reality’ through a
focus on experiential phenomena – the senses, consciousness.
As Ferguson puts it: ‘the representation of experience as experienced by individuals’.
This is a modification of what we might think of as realism. This altered attitude to the
real is what distinguishes modernism from earlier forms.
The ‘real’ in Modernism
Nevertheless modernism in art and literature remains an essentialist
It questions the scientific positivism of earlier periods while
remaining focused on trying to capture something real, or essential,
about existence.
This would come to be challenged in the post-war years – especially
after the 1960s with the emergence of post-structuralism and postmodernism which in its more acute forms rejects the possibility of
language representing anything apart from language.
Impressionism and the short story
In any case turn of the century impressionism, Ferguson argues,
lends itself particularly well to the form of the short story.
In particular Ferguson cites the influence of impressionism on the
plot of short stories:
‘The deemphasis of physical action in impressionist fiction (or the
disjunction of physical action from thought and feeling), which
leaves adjustments of thought or feeling as the true “events” of the
plot, makes the articulation of plot in many cases obscure’
Deletion of plot in the short story
The main symptom of this obfuscation is the deletion of
elements of the plot that would be filled out in the form of
the novel.
This deletion gives rise to two forms of plot:
 Elliptical plots
 Metaphoric plots
The omissions in both types of plot cause a rise in the
work rate of the reader.
Effectively we are asked to give some thought to making
out the underlying hypothetical plot.
Elliptical plots
In the elliptical plot there are omissions from the
chronological series of events which might be
referred to but which are never directly narrated.
The entire story might take place at the moment
of some crisis, or immediately preceding it.
The emphasis is on the narration of the moment.
A novel does the work of elaborating or returning
to those plot points, but a short story with an
elliptical plot will not.
Metaphoric plot
A metaphoric plot will represent aspects of the
hypothetical plot by way of a set of images and
A metaphor, you will remember, is a function of
language which relates two seemingly unrelated
subjects by way of direct comparison.
To say of a sports person, for example, ‘She’s
running hot today’ compares the abilities of the
sportsperson to an engine working at full
Short story plots: Two Sisters 1
I’ll work through an example in Ama Ata
Aidoo’s story ‘Two Sisters’ to give you a
clearer idea of what I mean about elliptical
and metaphoric plots.
‘Two Sisters’ – Events of the story
The events of the story are relatively simple and occur in scenes on two days.
Day one: Finishing work and wearing a new pair of shoes, Mercy comes home to the house of her
sister Connie (Sissie) and her husband James.
Connie and Mercy talk about Mercy’s desire to marry.
Connie notices the shoes. Mercy reveals that she is the lover of the political figure Mensar Arthur.
Connie is morally offended by this.
Mensar-Arthur picks Mercy up in his powerful car and they head to the Seaway where they ‘play
with each other’s bodies’.
Back at home Connie tells her husband James about the affair and James sees opportunity in this
for advancement.
Jump forward through a couple of months as Connie has her baby, receives the gift of the sewing
machine motor from Mensar-Arthur, Mercy moves into a government estate house and then the
coup which overturns the old order and Mensar-Arthur is no longer in power.
Day two: Connie and James discuss the changed political situation.
Connie is glad the moral/social threat to her sister has disappeared.
James is disappointed that he won’t have a patron to procure a new taxi for him.
Mercy arrives in a car for the first time in a while and again with new shoes and a new man –
Captain Ashey, a powerful and quite old figure in the post-coup government.
Formal elements
We manage to develop a sense of the hypothetical story from certain formal
elements of the story:
 the narrating voice which shifts point of view. This voice is at some
 in the third person focalized through Mercy’s consciousness and
voice (‘..Mm, so for the meantime it is going to continue to be the
municipal bus with grimy seats, it’s common passengers and
impudent conductors…Jesus!’),
 more objective third person (‘The new pair of black shoes are more
realistic than their owner, though. As she walks down the corridor
they sing’)
 and at other times again in the first person, speaking in Connie’s
voice (and I believed her because I know what they pay her is just
not enough to last anyone through any month, even minus rent.’)
 or even that of the Old Sea.
 The other major device used in this story is dialogue. Through dialogue
some events (such as Mensar-Arthur’s jailing) are referred to indirectly.
‘Two Sisters’ Hypothetical plot
These formal elements allow us to piece together from the elliptical plot
the chronological events of the story, not all of which have not been
directly narrated – the hypothetical plot.
 The African nation of Ghana on the Gulf of Guinea becomes
independent of its British colonial government.
 The sisters’ parents die and Connie, the elder sibling who is married to
James a philandering and ambitious taxi driver, becomes more-or-less
the guardian of her younger sister Mercy.
 Mercy goes to work in an office every day as a typist and is being
courted by a taxi-driver named Joe.
 In an materially aspirational move Mercy becomes the regular, but not
exclusive lover of Mensar-Arthur, a member of the Ghanain parliament.
 Mercy reveals this relationship to her sister who disapproves on moral
 A coup takes place and Mensar-Arthur is jailed.
 Connie is relieved that the coup has removed her sister from moral
 Mercy becomes the lover of Captain Ashey.
 She reveals this relationship to her sister.
Elliptical detective work
This story is not an extreme example of ellipticality (much of what
happens is referred to directly)
Nevertheless putting together the omitted plot aspects of ‘Two
Sisters’ allows us to see that the work of narrating – or assembling a
story – is done somewhere between the writing and reading
This detective work is part of the work of making sense of an
elliptical plot
We make sense of a chronology of events that have been omitted in
the same way that we collect the impressions of light portrayed in
the Monet to piece together a ‘real’ version of the image of a small
boat on the water at sunrise.
Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)
1873 (210 Kb); Oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm (19 x 24 3/8"); Musee Marmottan, Paris
Metaphoric plot
The sense of metaphoric plot is also at work here.
The events being narrated present a narrow domestic and personal story of the opposing
approaches that the two sisters have toward obtaining personal gain through one sister’s morally
doubtful association with political figures.
We also read the omission here of the larger political story as significant – or rather we can read
the small events which are foregrounded as standing for the larger events.
Technically this is known as metonym. (In the same sense that we refer to the White House when
we mean the entire institution of the US presidency.)
We have here an African country independent of its colonial power, run by people like MensarArthur who exploit their position of power to enhance their economic and personal status.
There is reference here to a larger economic and social order which, in a novel, might have been
more fully explored but which here has been backgrounded.
This backgrounding of political events which clearly has an enormous influence on the lives of the
characters is juxtaposed against a sudden broad view through the deliberate shift of the point of
The point of view moves from that of the sisters, and even a more objective third person to the
sudden meta-objective focalization of the Old Sea which observes the political and sexual
powerplays with bored detachment.
The metaphor at work here, especially with the change of power that comes with the coup and the
oblique references to centres of economic and political power like London where Mensar-Arthur
travels on a trade delegation, and ‘the white man’s land’ where cars are manufactured, could be
one about the transitory nature of power and status and their contingency on other centres of
power and status.
Challenging centres of power
I made mention earlier of the relationship between impressionism to the
modernist movement which devolved the established preeminence of
scientific positivism in the representational arts.
This devolution continued through the twentieth century as writers
consciously challenged the masculine, colonial and economic centres of
power that had dominated the representation of women and colonized
The short story in the post-modern, post-colonial and feminist era
challenges many centres of power and knowledge
One question you might like to take up in your tutorial groups is to consider
what centering of knowledge is being challenged in each of the stories.
We can locate each of the short stories being studied in this week by Peter
Carey, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Margaret Atwood, as working somewhere along
the continuum between realism, modernism and post-modernism.
Each is implicitly or explicitly critiquing something about the culture that they
are giving voice to.
‘Two Sisters’: Post-colonial
Aidoo’s ‘Two Sisters’, as I have alluded to, concerns itself with a
historically ‘real’ situation which is told through a sometimes nonrealist method.
The function of this method might be to allow her to point out the
contradictions that exist in a post-colonial society, the perhaps tooidealistic attachment of Connie to her Presbyterian morality and her
support of the coup which overthrew what she thinks of a corrupt
regime whose end would be the ruin of her sister.
One question you might like to consider is whether the story
suggests it is more beneficial to remain pragmatically attached to
whoever is in power as Mercy does, or to remain ‘true’ to ideals, as
exemplified by Connie.
An important point to make here is that this is a story about an
African experience written from the ‘inside’. This is not colonial view
of Africa, which might observe its characters as exotic Others.
‘War Crimes’: counter-culture
Carey’s ‘War Crimes’ is typical of his 1970s short stories in that that
it presents a vision of a post-apocalyptic world, or at least some kind
of future dystopian reality which is nevertheless seen as being
continuous with the reality of the 1970s.
The story might be read as a critique of the loss of idealism among
the hippie counter-culture generation of the 1960s and the cynicism
that came to characterize the punk era of the late 70s.
Rather than getting into some kind of nostalgia about the era, this
story imagines a world in which there is massive and perpetual
unemployment, a welfare state which supports those who are
marginalized by rampant capitalism.
‘The Age of Lead’: Progress and its
Margaret Atwood’s story ‘The Age of Lead’ concerns
itself with a critique of life in a modern urban setting.
The central character Jane, through whom the story is
focalised, emerges at the point of the story’s present in
the early nineties having lived through the great cultural
generational dislocations and liberations of the sixties,
the materialism and decay of the seventies and eighties,
through to her present where she is alone, lonely and in
perpetual doubt about the cause of death of her long
standing friend Vincent.
We have another dystopia in this story (again typical of
the author) but in this case the dystopia is not fantastic
or exotic but real.
‘The Age of Lead’ (cont)
Framing Jane’s story are the ‘real life’ events being shown on
television of the exhumation from the permafrost of the body of John
Torrington – one of the apparent victims of the excesses of human
reach in trying to continue the colonial expansion of the western
powers in the doomed Franklin expedition (which perhaps not
coincidentally is mentioned in Conrad’s colonial novella ‘Heart of
Darkness’) trying to find a speedier trade route through a Northwest
passage over the Arctic.
The place of the Torrington story seems uncertain until the story’s
denouement which reveals that this frozen corpse and the rest of the
crew were not victims of the weather, but rather the effects of lead
poisoning. The story which emerges from the ice into Jane’s present
through the television is really a signal indicating the start of the age
of lead – the age of industrial production and innovation which
appears to advance civilisation but which has hidden consequences
– those which linger and impact uncertainly on Jane’s life and those
in the materially decaying urban world about her.
These are three examples of a form of
fiction that with its economy of language,
its sometimes oblique attitude toward the
chronological and ‘realist’ re-presentation
of events, people and objects and its
tendency toward metaphor, operates
perhaps – in opposition to the novel –
more like a poem.
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