Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 2 – History and the Short Story

Boccaccio: The Decameron - Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

Boccaccio: The Decameron – Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

My own study of the short story is based on the assumption that a group of literary conventions cluster around short fiction because of its shortness and its relationship to other genres throughout its history. … The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

Having established some guidelines for “the genre” of short story in Chapter 1, May now turns to looking at the development of the form over time, with a more historical approach to the development of the short story: its origins in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the Renaissance and embraced a few centuries later by the Romantics; the nineteenth-century period of development showcased by Poe and Hawthorne; and the modern tale of Chekhov and Carver. I’m a bit disappointed not to see any indication of the more post-modern take on story, where narrative itself is optional, but, after all, the current historical period is still open. In any case, since my weakest knowledge is of the past, this is a good place for me to focus. There’s some overlap with Chapter 1, as these are all previously published academic essays collected in this volume, but the focus is one of time, not genre.

A good place to begin, in any history is the beginning; but what was the first short story?

Perhaps the most equitable and yet the most manageable starting point is that era when short narratives, written in prose first moved out of the realm of popular oral folk tale and religious allegory and qualified as a form of individual human art. Most historians agree that such a point was reached with the publication of Boccaccio’s revolutionary collection The Decameron in the middle of the fourteenth century.

This surprised me. In high school, I was taught Guy de Maupassant was the first short story writer; in college, that shifted to Poe. The Renaissance? Interesting…

I can see the point, though. At the time of Boccaccio, religious allegory was the major formal literature in Europe (and we are taking a highly Eurocentric view of literature throughout this book). But folk art will not be denied, and “vulgar popular folktales” consisting of “anecdotes, bits of gossip, vulgar jokes, and ribald tales without established traditions of narrative procedures and rhetorical devices” (pg. 31) coexisted with the approved forms. Boccaccio’s achievement was to combine these approaches: to write a tale with a narrative structure and a point, but to base characters and events on real life people and situations instead of idealized visions that existed only to personify morality. Part of the task, May says, was to ” transform meaningless everyday reality into a meaningful teleological event with a formal unifying pattern” – to create the inevitable surprise that underlies successful fiction.

I have not read The Decameron nor do I particularly wish to (I’m about to dive into Dante via another MOOC, and I only have so much verbal energy, not to mention time for intense reading). Overall, the structure of the whole reminds me of The Canterbury Tales, which has its share of vulgarity, as well as significant resentment of higher religious authorities (those who think popular culture today is a mess should check out Chaucer): an assortment of people find themselves together (in a village escaping the plague-ridden city, or on a pilgrimage to Canterbury), and tell stories to pass the time. Canterbury was, of course a poem, not prose, but the comparison remains.

I did read one story chosen at random (I.6, An honest man, with a chance pleasantry, putteth to shame the perverse hypocrisy of the religious orders), and perhaps saw the “poetic justice” and “ironic patterning” to which May refers, as incorporated into the plot. This, he says, marks a shift from the religious allegory, which exemplifies a religious ideal thus refers to an external moral point, to story form, in which the plot takes on the burden of creating meaning by the structuring of events. In the story, a winemaker is taken to task by religious authorities for claiming he has a wine fit for Christ to drink, and is assigned to eternal torment; on payment of a fee to the official, the sin is mediated. He later invokes a Bible quote to embarrass the official by pointing out the greed and gluttony of the cleric’s habit of feeding only his table scraps in a broth to the poor, thus hoisting the man of god on his own petard, so to speak – the “reversal of intention” May links to such stories as “The Gift of the Magi.”

The basic romantic tendency is to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine. The return to romance of the nineteenth century is a return with a difference; the formulaic stories remain much the same, but they are now given a new basis of authority – the subjectivity of the teller – even as the story events themselves are presented as if they were objective events in the phenomenal world….This focus on the individual perspective creates a new tension in the old tale – undermining the mythic or supernatural authority of the story and placing an increasing emphasis on the relativity of reality, the ambiguity of the event, and the skepticism of the teller.

When I read this, I thought of the Greek & Roman Mythology MOOC I recently completed. Peter Struck of the University of Pennsylvania talked about instances of Vergil’s “rationalizing impulse” in The Aeneid: is Dido’s undying love of Aeneas due to the meddling of the gods, or to the sympathetic framing of the hero caring for his son; is Anchises’ appearance in a dream a visitation from the spirits, or a psychological manifestation of Aeneas himself? I think that’s something like the tension analyzed here.

May then turns to the Romantic period of the 19th century. There was, in fact, a resurgence of interest in Boccaccio at this time, and The Decameron was again of interest to scholars. To illustrate the Romantic period, I chose to read Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which May mentions as an example of a work which “presents a situation that is seemingly supernatural and symbolically significant, but which the narrator simultaneously undermines with his skeptical ironic point of view.” In the Introduction, he also mentioned it was the source of the title of this collection of essays: the main character, teased and harassed, finally breaks his tolerance with an outcry: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and, though he is never aware of it, those words have a profound effect on one of the bullies and allow Gogol to spell out the direction of the tale: upcoming revelation of hypocrisy and artifice.

In these moving words, other words resounded –”I am thy brother.” And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and noble.

~~ Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, “The Overcoat”

I wish we could all have those moments at critical times – when an abused child braces herself for a blow, when a minimum-wage worker is told how motivating poverty is, when a young boy cries, “Don’t shoot!” perhaps. But back to the story, and the tension between hints of the supernatural, against the ironic distance of the narrator.

References to the supernatural are scattered throughout, from the granting of Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin’s very name (was it the fate of opening the calendar to certain days, or merely a family name handed down – or a mother’s disregard for her child?) to the “involuntary sensation of fear, as if his heart warned him of some evil” just before his cloak is stolen (the presence of a wraith, or the usual fear of being in a deserted, strange area late at night?), to the rumored haunting of the Kalinkin Bridge by a dead man (or was it the same thief – was there even a thief at all, given that the coachman saw nothing amiss, or was it the magistrate’s conscience that tricked him into creating a thief out of the wind?). All of this, as May says, is related by a highly visible narrator who maintains a tone of reason throughout. Yet the “poetic justice” of the second theft somewhat relieves the sadness of the first – I say “somewhat” since, after all, Bashmatchkin is still dead.

May revisits Poe’s discussion of aesthetic unity as the primary requirement of the short story, adding “the psychological obsession embodied in a first-person narrator” to the array of techniques used in the nineteenth century. Just the mention of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is enough to illustrate this point. I wonder if the repetitive nature of Poe’s poetic forms, such as “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee”, suggested or merely dovetailed into this notion.

We move forward to the era of the “modern” short story:

…[R]eality in the modern short story seems to be a purely objective event, even as at the same time the intense selectivity practiced by Chekhov, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver results in an intensification of reality that no longer seems objective and real, but what some critics have called “hyperrealism”…. reality is so attenuated and restricted (rather than developed and expanded as in the realistic novel) that it takes on an hallucinatory, dreamlike effect….objects and events are transformed from mere matter into meaningful by the motivating force of the story’s own thematic and structural demands.

I chose to re-read two stories as exemplars for this section: Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Carver’s “Chef’s House”; neither are explicitly mentioned in this chapter, but they seem to fit the bill, both of the above hyperrealism, and of what May refers to as the movement of the character from ignorance to knowledge.

In Hemingway, the landscape itself becomes symbolic of the conflict between the couple. As such, it’s constantly emphasized: the arid, sun-bleached hills on one side, the lush greenery on the other. I was always taught that the dry side signified barrenness, thus the option of abortion, which the man prefers, while the other side is associated with life should the pregnancy continue. That’s fine – but I’ve always wondered if the man’s viewpoint might reverse those, if he sees the stark side as his life burdened with woman and child, while living will forever be at his back. Not to excuse him – I certainly see him as a bit of a bully and shirker in this – but to mix things up a little. Two people look at the same landscape, and have opposite associations. Different readers often come to very different conclusions about this story: just what was decided, if anything?

In the context of this chapter, I’m more interested in the movement of both characters from ignorance to knowledge. The knowledge, I think, is not one of which side to choose: each knows more about the other, and more about him/herself and the extent of his/her power in their relationship. I also suspect this relationship is doomed.

“Chef’s House” shows another couple moving towards knowledge of the other; it’s a favorite of mine. I read it a couple of years ago having seen it mentioned in Prof. May’s blog in connection with another story. I see here also the landscape, the details, exaggerated and symbolicized to this dreamlike state. I said at the time: “you can see the ocean, but you have to look beyond the access road and freeway – the ocean is on the other side of ‘access’ and ‘free’.” There’s a double negotiation: in the beginning, Wes convinces Edna to come live in Chef’s House with him, and at the end, Edna tries to convince Wes that the loss of the house need not be the end of their idyllic (to her) summer. Wes prevails in both cases, as each discovers what he/she wants, and whether or not the other can participate in that goal.

In neither case of these “modern” stories is the supernatural, or some higher moral principle, or even a narrator, an element. The story is in the setting, the characters, and the choices they make, the actions they take.

The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

May’s historical view of the short story ends here. I wonder, on reflection, if the emergence of the importance of form in narrative over the past 20 (50?) years is a new trend, or just another glint in the window. I’m a fan of unusual narrative devices: lists, dialog captures, found text, instructions. Most recently, comix (aka “graphic stories”) which have a grammar of their own – One Story opened up a world I’d previously dismissed with Matt Madden’s “Drawn Onward” in Issue #182. I look forward to new things.

I also look forward to Prof. May’s Chapter 3, “The Novel and the Short Story.” My life is about to be complicated by concurrent MOOCs, plus the publication of BASS in October, so I can’t promise a schedule; it will happen, however. Inevitably, surprisingly.


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