Alphonse Daudet Essay - Critical Essays

Alphonse Daudet Short Fiction Analysis

Storytelling was probably Alphonse Daudet’s most fundamental talent as a writer. His first writings, in verse, told a story more often than not, and his early newspaper work was largely anecdotal in nature. So ingrained was the storytelling impulse, indeed, that his first novels were either episodic in structure—The Little Good-for-Nothing and The New Don Quixote—or were composed of several interwoven but plainly separate plots, tenuously and artificially linked to one another. Throughout the 1870’s, while his popularity began to grow, the critics insistently pointed out that Daudet seemed to be too “short-winded” to write a full-length novel of adequately unified conception, calling him, with pejorative intent, a talented conteur who was out of his depth in the novel. Daudet did not really lay the ghost of this criticism to rest until the 1880’s, when his novels—especially Sapho (1884; Sappho, 1886)—won acclaim for their sustained formal excellence.

In retrospect, critical opinion seems not to have been far wrong, for it is primarily Daudet’s short-story output of the 1860’s and 1870’s which still survives as literature rather than the awkwardly constructed novels of that period. In the long run, indeed, the survival of Daudet’s total literary reputation may ultimately rest on his achievement in the short story alone. Certainly it is when telling a story that Daudet is at his most typical and at his best as a writer.

The heart of Alphonse Daudet’s claim to fame as a short-story writer is to be found in a handful of the best stories from two collections. Letters from My Mill and Monday Tales, plus two longer compositions unexpectedly produced at the very end of his career when he momentarily returned to the long-neglected literary form of his beginnings.

Letters from My Mill

As the title indicates, all the twenty-five stories in Letters from My Mill are cast in the form of letters; this enabled Daudet to provide each tale with a framework and an intimate, personal tone suggesting that narrator and reader are close friends. Much of the charm of these stories derives from this conversational narrative tone.

In perhaps the best-known of these stories, “M. Seguin’s Goat,” the tale of the goat who wanted freedom, is told as an exemplary tale by the narrator to a fellow writer who is being urged to give up his freelance status in favor of the regular income of a staff journalist. The narrative itself is therefore constantly interrupted by asides to the presumed audience of one, exhorting him to recognize the dangers of freedom and the advantages of security, as demonstrated by the case of the goat. By means of a subtly controlled irony, however, Daudet is able to undercut his own narrator’s voice, making the account of the goat’s escape from M. Seguin’s tether to the mountain so delightful an experience and the goat’s battle with the wolf so bravely heroic that the lesson the ending should carry (“And in the morning, the wolf devoured the poor goat”) must ring hollow to the reader. The narrator’s personality thus directly affects the impact of the story—indeed, the narrator, who is unaware that his own choice of words is undermining his purpose, becomes the main character in the story and the ultimate focus of our amused interest. The story creates an unusually inventive role for the narrator and makes a quite original use of the device of irony.

A parallel technique accounts for the delightful effect of another story in the collection, “L’Elixir de Révérend Père Gaucher” (“The Reverend Father Gaucher’s Elixir”), which recounts the mock-tragic plight of a monk who has created a liqueur which has made his monastery prosperous but who cannot prepare the beverage without committing the sin of drunkenness because he must keep tasting the product to be sure it is exactly right. In this instance, the narrator is a priest, who means his story to be a solemn account of a pious soul inadvertently brought to damnation but who cannot keep from making the story comic and even ribald. The ironic gap between the narrator’s intention and his effect is here, as in “M. Seguin’s Goat,” the principal pleasure afforded the reader.

The various narrators of Letters from My Mill can be spellbinding in quite different ways from this device of comic irony. In one of the finest stories, “L’Arlésienne,” for example, the narrator is almost completely self-effacing. The narration of this stark tale of unrequited love, ending in desperation and suicide, proceeds by means of the simplest words and direct, unadorned sentences. Nothing calls attention to the voice or personality of the narrator. Instead, the tightly restrained narrative style suggests the emotional impact the story is having on the narrator, with the result that the power of the tale is brought home to the reader with swift and unexpected immediacy.

In quite another vein, Daudet affects the tone of the sententious moralist to...

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