Study Guide

The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction

The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction Summary

England and the Modern Short Story (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

By 1840, then, in the modern short story, American literature could boast the triumphs of southwestern literature as well as masterpieces by Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, even though as an independent country America could measure its existence only in decades. What was being produced in the great European literatures, especially in English literature? Curiously enough, the country with the greatest literary heritage on earth, although it could boast much excellent short fiction, had not yet produced creditable modern short stories. Many of England’s finest writers experimented, often unsuccessfully, with shorter forms: Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who had helped give Irving’s career a great boost, produced some fine ghost stories and an interesting tale, “The Two Drovers,” which develops from an essay framework. Beginning in 1820, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) published his Essays of Elia (1823) in the London Magazine; these were a series of brilliant familiar essays with everything required of a short story—psychologically rich character, sharply imaged setting, at least a minimal narrative flow—everything but a focus on a unique, particular experience meaningful for its own sake (the only likely exception might be “Dream Children,” published in 1822, which is sometimes anthologized as a short story).

“Dream Children,” with its narrative movement and its management of time between present and past, is a precursor to a central nineteenth century short story convention, for it depends on a surprise ending in which what the reader took to be an actual event is ultimately revealed to be mere reverie. As in the eighteenth century essay form generally, no one really exists in “Dream Children” except the teller; characters and events merely serve his rhetorical purpose. The climax comes when the teller sees the dead mother in the face of one of the children and begins to doubt “which of them stood there before me.” Irving’s character Rip Van Winkle has the same ambiguous response when he awakes and sees his own son as himself. Variations of the motif occur throughout the century whenever there is some ambiguity within the narrative as to the psychological or phenomenological status of characters or events.

The best-known example of the literary transformation of the oral folktale in early nineteenth century British literature is Sir Walter Scott’s insert tale in Redgauntlet (1824), often anthologized as “Wandering Willie’s Tale.” Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, “Wandering Willie’s Tale” manifests the typical ambiguity of the nineteenth century short story as to whether the events recounted are supernatural or psychologically realistic. “Wandering Willie’s Tale” forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale, in which supernatural confrontations were the stock-in-trade and the later British mystery story in which the seemingly supernatural encounter is justified in a grotesque but realistic way.

Both the supernatural and the natural are presented side by side in the tale to create a pattern of motifs that mocks the Lord of the manor, Sir Robert, even as it also mocks supernatural explanations for the mysterious disappearance of the rent money and Steenson’s consequent visit to hell to obtain the receipt he needs to prove he paid the rent. Because of the ambiguous tone of the teller, “Wandering Willie’s Tale” marks a transition from the supernatural tale of the folk variety to the modern short story in which the seemingly supernatural events have either realistic or psychological explanations.

Again and again, as T. O. Beachcroft points out, the best English writers seemed inclined to treat the kind of material most appropriate to a short story only as an episode in a novel or as a brief narrative poem. Countless examples of short stories manqué from the early nineteenth century might be drawn from Jane Austen’s novels or from certain...

(The entire section is 1629 words.)

The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction Germany and the Modern Short Story (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Previous discussion has shown how the early nineteenth century American short story developed essentially from a synthesis of the best that two divergent traditions offered. The Americans’ model for the essay-sketch tradition came primarily from England; for contemporary Americans and Englishmen, however, the dominant written model for the other strain, that of the tale tradition, consisted chiefly of the literary Märchen (folktales) and Novellen (longer and relatively more realistic stories) of then-fashionable German writers. As was earlier noted, for example, the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, achieved vast and immediate popularity by publishing short narratives based on their researches into Germanic folklore. Irving based “Rip Van Winkle” on a tale in a similar collection by Otmar. Such stories are called “fairy tales” in English, although often they contain no fairies at all but witches, trolls, giants, or ogres. What they all do contain is emphasis on a striking incident or series of incidents that take precedence over character, setting, and all other elements. In addition, as true folktales, they share a common origin in folk traditions; each, in this sense, is (despite the inevitable variations incorporated by each individual narrator) a very old story.

In contrast to these traditional folktales there developed in Germany a tradition of Novellen. The term Novellen derives from the Italian term novella, which signifies “a small new thing.” The sense of the word “new” in Novellen and novella (and in the French term nouvelle) might be taken to mean “unusual or surprising,” but in fact it seems most probably to have developed to distinguish a basically or at least largely original story from an essentially traditional story. The Novellen do tend to have a relatively more complex and realistic social background, but otherwise any artificial distinction between Märchen and Novellen becomes quite problematic when there is in both genres of German tale a fondness for particular...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction Russia and the Modern Short Story (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The origins of the Russian short story, like those of Russian literature itself, most scholars trace to Alexander Pushkin. Before Pushkin, in prose as in verse, there were two predominant “literary” strains in Russia: on one hand, a vigorous tradition of oral folklore and, on the other, a written tradition dominated by foreign models, especially by the French. In fact, during Pushkin’s time, French was the language affected by the elite; Pushkin’s education was essentially French, his early reading emphasized French literature, and, startling though the fact may be, the father of Russian literature began his career as a writer in the French language.

As with the great American and European short-story writers, however, although his formal education emphasized polite written literature, Pushkin was informally introduced to a rich folkloric tradition of oral tales bursting with sharply defined characters, improbable incidents, and marvelous settings—the Russian narodnye skazki (folktales) and volsebnye skazki (fairy tales).

Pushkin began as a poet, and a long-verse narrative, Ruslan i Lyudmila (1820; Ruslan and Liudmila, 1936), was his first great success. He went on, however, to produce masterpieces in all the major genres—the play Boris Godunov (wr. 1824-1825, pb. 1831; English translation, 1918), the brilliant verse novel Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881), and, most important for the purposes of this discussion, Povesti Belkina (1831; Russian Romance, 1875; better known as The Tales of Belkin, 1947), a framed group of five dramatic and romantic short stories—but his masterpiece of short fiction is The Queen of Spades. By Poe’s standards the piece is long (about ten thousand words, it is divided into chapters) and rambling, with a need for tighter focus, but it may be considered the first great short story in Russian literature.

Normally considered the second...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction France and the Modern Short Story (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Anomalies and paradoxes abound in the short story. One is that the French, celebrated for their emphasis on logic and rationality (or alternately reviled for their penchant for contentious rationalization), have spent much less energy defining their basic critical terms for short fiction, conte and nouvelle, than people such as the Germans and the Americans have expended analyzing their own. Yet the French have among the world’s richest traditions in short fiction generally and in the short story in particular.

Conte, apparently the older French term, seems quite close to the word “tale”—on one hand connoting emphasis on a dramatic (often supernatural or fantastic) central incident or...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)