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The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925

The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925: Theory of a Genre

Florence Goyet
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Open Book Publishers
Pages: 219
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  • Book Info
    The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925
    Book Description:

    The ability to construct a nuanced narrative or complex character in the constrained form of the short story has sometimes been seen as the ultimate test of an author's creativity. Yet during the time when the short story was at its most popular - the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - even the greatest writers followed strict generic conventions that were far from subtle. This expanded and updated translation of Florence Goyet's influential La Nouvelle, 1870-1925: Description d'un genre à son apogée (Paris, 1993) is the only study to focus exclusively on this classic period across different continents. Ranging through French, English, Italian, Russian and Japanese writing - particularly the stories of Guy de Maupassant, Henry James, Giovanni Verga, Anton Chekhov and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke - Goyet shows that these authors were able to create brilliant and successful short stories using the very simple 'tools of brevity' of that period. In this challenging and far-reaching study, Goyet looks at classic short stories in the context in which they were read at the time: cheap newspapers and higher-end periodicals. She demonstrates that, despite the apparent intention of these stories to question bourgeois ideals, they mostly affirmed the prejudices of their readers. In doing so, her book forces us to re-think our preconceptions about this 'forgotten' genre.

    eISBN: 978-1-909254-77-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 1-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-10)

    This book aims to characterise what I consider to be the “classic” short story, which was written throughout the world by both major and minor short story writers in the period covering roughly 1870-1925. Although the short story has tended to be characterised as offering psychological complexity and nuanced characters, the classic short stories operated under extremely strict conventions. Despite the fact that this form of the short story was practiced so widely, its importance to the genre has yet to be sufficiently acknowledged in the extensive literature on the topic.

    In the Anglophone world, two major works gave birth...


    • 1. Paroxystic Characterisation
      (pp. 13-26)

      At the end of the nineteenth century, through the influence of Naturalism, literature was striving to become the “science of the human heart”, and as a consequence many critics and writers began to condemn rhetoric.¹ InThe Experimental Novel(1880), using Claude Bernard as a guide, Émile Zola called his fellow writers to become “observers” in the spirit of the physiologist.² He urged writers to renounce rhetoric, if not style: “The observer relates purely and simply the phenomena which he has under his eyes… He should be the photographer of phenomena, his observation should be an exact representation of nature”.³...

    • 2. Antithetic Structure
      (pp. 27-42)

      By the paroxystic characterisation we have just observed, the classic short story makes its characters into the exemplary representatives of their category: the Rebel and the Rich Young Man; the Great Author and the Devoted Critic. These become almost abstract entities. What is lost in the individualisation of the characters, however, is gained in the efficacy of the plot. The interest shifts from individuals to the development of the story itself, for which such characters are remarkably well adapted. The essential feature of the short story then becomes its structure, which, at the period we are considering in the late...

    • 3. Ending with a Twist
      (pp. 43-54)

      A whole body of contemporary criticism is dedicated to the analysis and appraisal of short stories’ endings. A story’s conclusion has often been thought of as an effective way of grasping the genre’s characteristic features, as well as to understand the ways that readers experience the genre.¹ Influenced by the seminal reflexions of Frank Kermode inThe Sense of an Ending,² critics like John Gerlach, Per Winther, David Sheridan and Susan Lohafer have all argued that endings were of key importance in defining the short story.³ This idea has been present since the very beginnings of the genre. In his...

    • 4. The Tools of Brevity
      (pp. 55-72)

      The short story is almost always praised for its “economy of means”. In the classic short story, this restraint is not to be found in the narrative elements that, to the contrary, we have seen to be built on extremes. Nevertheless the short story clearly proceeds towards its goal with a particular speed and effectiveness: within only a few pages, the reader is introduced to a full universe and knows what is at stake in the narrative. The aim of this chapter is to understand how the classic short story achieves this acceleration of comprehension in the reader — its means...

    • 5. Conclusion to Part I
      (pp. 73-80)

      The techniques we just reviewed combine to make the classic short story’s structure an efficient whole. Each of the characters’ traits is brought to its ultimate intensity by means of paroxysm; thus making the character an ideal representative of his type. Because this makes the character abstract, the short story can easily and rapidly incorporate him in a strong structure. Similarly, because the structure — the staging of the situation — prevails over the study of individuals, reliance on a type is not a handicap, and the reader’s entrance into the story can be accelerated by the use of preconstructed material. Paroxystic...


    • 6. Exoticism in the Classic Short Story
      (pp. 83-100)

      Harold Orel’s remark about Robert Louis Stevenson does not apply to all short story writers at the turn of the century, but his three essential points can be given a general application. Almost all short stories were written for periodicals at the end of the nineteenth century; as such, the author needed to adapt to a market and a pre-existing public (the readership of the periodical in which he published). Moreover, Orel points to the great law of the classic short story: exoticism. This may be surprising or shocking considering that exoticism — so overused in the preceding era — was known...

    • 7. Short Stories and the Travelogue
      (pp. 101-114)

      At the beginning of their careers, Henry James and Guy de Maupassant wrote as many travelogues as they did short stories. The travelogue — by which I mean a “factual” article describing a journey to a foreign place — became another important item in the newspapers of the late nineteenth century. We shall see in this chapter that short stories of that time shared many characteristics with the travelogue, and that this had a direct and important bearing on the short story as a genre. Authors in general — and these two authors in particular — very often wrote travelogues and short stories at...


    • 8. A Foreign World
      (pp. 117-136)

      If we were to define the classic short story in one word, it would certainly be “distance”. This distance is very often recognised for individual stories, but critics never, to my knowledge, see it as a characteristic feature of the genre per se.¹ There are two possible reasons for this. The first one is that we share with the readers of the periodicals of the time the objectifying distance from the characters. Nineteenth-century workers, provincials or peasants are as far — or rather further — from twenty-first century readers as they were from the readers of Milan’sFanfullaor Paris’sLe Gaulois....

    • 9. Dialogue and Character Discreditation
      (pp. 137-152)

      So far we have looked at some of the most common techniques that create a sense of distance between reader and character in the short story. There are, however, two devices that are rather more subtle and deserve a longer look. In this chapter we shall analyse the first of these: what happens when the story makes room for the character’s “actual” words. Then, in the next chapter, we will pause to look at the interaction among the various participants in the narrative process: author, narrator, reader and character. The short story is at its most exquisitely subtle and complex...

    • 10. The Narrator, the Reflector and the Reader
      (pp. 153-164)

      The classic short story makes use of the all participants in the narrative process — author, narrator and reader — to create the characteristic distance between reader and characters. The reader shares with the author the exhilaration of enjoying the spectacle of this distance. In this chapter, the short story will once again show its versatility: it can distance the narrator from the reader, or equally it can create a real proximity to him, only to increase the distance from the other characters. We will first spend some time on the concept of the “reflector”, as described by Henry James, to show...

    • 11. Distance and Emotion
      (pp. 165-182)

      In Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms, a text is monologic and diametrically opposed to the polyphonic novel when it lets us hear one truth only, privileging one voice over all others.¹ In the classic short story this voice is that of the reader through his representatives — the narrator and reflector. The polyphonic text can claim an ethical superiority, but this does not mean that monologic texts are without power, charm or value.² The classic short story is perfectly adapted to satire — the ethical value of which is evident. It can help readers to see vividly all the shortcomings of a character or...

    • 12. Conclusion to Part III: Are Dostoevsky’s Short Stories Polyphonic?
      (pp. 183-186)

      We have seen in Part III that the classic short story is a resolutely monologic genre, in which only the author-reader group has a fully-fledged “voice” of its own. Every possible rhetorical technique is used to distance the characters from the reader. The primary focus is on the characters’ difference, their exotic strangeness, and the result is that the reader judges their voice even before it has been heard. To conclude this section we should, then, return to Mikhail Bakhtin in order to justify the use I have made of the notion of polyphony. Actually, I find that I have...

  8. Epilogue: Beyond the Classic Short Story
    (pp. 187-196)

    The title of this book has given a chronological indication: 1870-1925, the period that represents the heyday for the “classic” short story. Before 1870, or rather at the beginning of the nineteenth century, short stories had a very different form, for example those of Nathaniel Hawthorne.¹ After 1920, there emerged a new type of short story that renounced all the characteristic traits we have described. Classic short stories continued to be written — and continued to sell — but beside them the twentieth century saw the rise of something quite different, which corresponds to what Clare Hanson calls “short fiction”, and which...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-206)
  10. Index
    (pp. 207-210)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-213)