Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Order of Insects” is so emotionally and intellectually absorbing that it is easy to overlook the technical artistry with which it is written. The most important means by which Gass achieves the great impact is by use of a first-person narrator whose relating of the events and her feelings is so intimately and painstakingly done that she comes powerfully to life as a character. As Gass has noted in “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” in his collection of critical theory and practical criticism Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), character creation is an especially exciting and important aspect of successful fiction writing because characters are the fundamental entities to which everything else in fiction relates and because they are the most energized components of stories. “Order of Insects” succeeds primarily because of this realistic narrator. The reader never learns her name, but such superficial realness is omitted appropriately because the story operates on a much more intimate level than that of human names. It is nearly stream-of-consciousness in its intimacy, with the narrator talking more to herself than to a companion or distant reader.

Although this intimate type of first-person narration is by no means original, Gass’s narration is technically masterful, the character becoming so lifelike that thoughts about an author’s controlling hand quickly fade. Even the story’s symbols and images are so closely tied to the narrator’s consciousness that they seem perfectly natural extensions of her perspective, such as when she notes her being surrounded by blocks at the story’s end. She clearly perceives the blocks as symbolic of her familial trap, the insight not seeming to be foisted on her by an intrusive author. Likewise, the story’s similes and metaphors reflect the narrator’s increasingly imaginative perceptions, as she goes from the rather commonplace comparison of dead bugs on the carpet to dead earthworms in the road after a rain, to the creative comparison of seeing the intensity of the bugs’ shells as similar to the intense stare of South Sea islanders in Paul Gauguin’s paintings. Such increasing creativity realistically dramatizes the narrator’s psychological change, keeping the reader absorbed in the most dramatic and mysterious reality of all: the human mind.

Order of Insects Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bellamy, Joe David, ed. The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass. Columbia: University Press of South Carolina, 2002.

Holloway, Watson L. William Gass. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Work of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Saltzman, Arthur M. The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Unsworth, John. “Against the Grain: Theory and Practice in the Work of William H. Gass.” Arizona Quarterly 48, no. 1 (Spring, 1992).

Vidal, Gore. Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays, 1973-1976. New York: Random House, 1977.