H. E. Bates Essay - Critical Essays

H. E. Bates Short Fiction Analysis

H. E. Bates’s relatively few unsuccessful stories (in which Angus Wilson finds “some sense of sentimentality that spoils what would otherwise be perfection”) are animated by Bates’s unwavering sense of wonderment in life, his feeling for the beauty in nature, and his insatiable appetite for pondering and re-creating the variety and richness of the human experience. Before Bates’s second collection, Day’s End, and Other Stories, what E. M. Forster called the battle against the “tyranny of plot” had already been won by pioneers from Chekhov, Maupassant, and Crane to James Joyce, A. E. Coppard, Katherine Mansfield, and Sherwood Anderson. Bates admired Chekhov for freeing the short story from the nineteenth century sin of wordiness, for his simplicity, and for implying rather than commenting; he had learned, too, from what he called Crane’s “sharp and dominant” lyricism, his “painterly quality,” and his depicting of life not in “wooly, grand, or ‘literary’ prose, but in pictures.” Perhaps the most important influences on Bates’s early short fiction, however, were his conversations with Coppard on the relationship between film and the short story: “I want to see it,” Coppard had insisted. “I must see it.”

This is not to suggest that the works in Day’s End, and Other Stories are essentially derivative or imitative. Bates was already finding his own narrative voice, his own subject matter, and his own methods; his major concerns were with character, mood, and the evocation of a sense of time and place. He was to insist later, “I never had the slightest interest in plots the idea of plot is completely foreign to my conception of the short story.”

Day’s End, and Other Stories

Most of the twenty-five stories in Day’s End, and Other Stories are set in the English Midlands that Bates knew so intimately; all but five or six are concerned with simple country folk, offering highly concentrated glimpses into the lives of his characters—single-episode sketches illuminated by muted revelations not unlike those of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). The world of Day’s End, and Other Stories is one in which a Creator—benign or malevolent—has no place; no divinity shapes his people’s lives. Spiritual poverty, frustration, and isolation are as much a part of one’s destiny as are their opposites, just as cold and rain, drought and decay, are as much a part of Nature as their opposites. The collection’s stories are short and simple annals of the poor, the lonely, and the unfulfilled. Yet almost without exception, the pictorial and lyric quality of the collection is remarkable, as a distinguished fiction writer was to comment a quarter of a century later: “In lucid, effortless prose, Bates can write for the fiftieth time of a field in summer as though he had never seen a field before.”

Throughout his long and productive career, Bates would explore other fields, utilize more traditional storytelling techniques and methods, and find more melodramatic or exotic settings. At the same time, he would continue to examine, recall, and write about the particular part of England that is the world of most of the collection’s stories.

The Black Boxer

The title story of The Black Boxer, the first of Bates’s collections published after his marriage, is interesting, particularly because of its atypical subject matter. The main character is an American black twenty years older than the local favorite he knocks out at a match at a county fairground. “The Hessian Prisoner,” perhaps the best as well as the best known of the collection’s stories, is similarly unusual, centering as it does on the death of a young German prisoner of war and the English couple in whose farm the prisoner is interned. More characteristic are “The Mower” and “A Flower Piece,” the first depicting a conflict between a farmer and his hired man, a competition reverberating with the farmer’s wife’s repressed sexual attraction for her husband’s worker, the second being a delicious little parody of genteel, middle-class mores. Such contrasts, so characteristic of Bates’s early fiction, become more sharply defined in The Woman Who Had Imagination, and Other Stories. “Sally Go Round the Moon” and “The Story Without an End,” for example, are dark depictions of loneliness, lovelessness, and decadence; after such excursions into the depths, the quiet good humor of a brief sketch such as “Time” comes as a welcome relief, as does “The Lily,” another sketch introducing Uncle Silas, who would become Bates’s most popular character.

Something Short and Sweet

Something Short and Sweet is the darkest and perhaps the finest of Bates’s prewar collections. In “Cloudburst,” Bates examines a farm couple’s futile efforts to save their barley crop from a devastating storm; the story is powerful and unerring in its specificity. At the other extreme are several stories involving grotesques who would be at home in the worlds of Flannery O’Connor or James Purdy. The most memorable of...

(The entire section is 2119 words.)