The Coal Shoveller Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A writer tries to create a short story while looking through his window at an African American man shoveling coal into a basement across the street. He experiments with various stylistic approaches and characters but repeatedly gives up. After his first abortive attempt, he writes: “To ask words to make fiction into photographic realism is to demand a performance which they are totally incapable of giving.”

He begins a personal story. His six-year-old daughter enters his study and breaks his concentration, so he takes her outside into the snow. He is only imagining this scenario, however, as he is actually still writing. Once again he stops. He now is beginning to sound like James Joyce in “The Dead” (1914)—a story that ends with a typical Joycean epiphany. He writes: “I am inclined to agree with those who say that literature (no matter how negative the theme) which reinforces the habit of extracting ideas from reality panders to the self-interest of the middle class.”

Still determined to persevere, the narrator next begins a story involving an old woman telling her grandson about Washington, D.C., of the past. Now his sentences sound like the convoluted, hypnotic prose of William Faulkner. He does not like to imitate but candidly admits: “I wish I could honestly see the fall of the Old South as tragic in the way that Faulkner did.”

Increasingly frustrated, the narrator indulges in self-recrimination, blaming...

(The entire section is 526 words.)