Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because the expert on the methods of structural anthropology is essentially located outside the action of the story, the voice that he employs in the course of the narration is the fundamental determinant of his character. As he is the only character in the story—what might be called an approximation of a protagonist, to indicate his relationship to the action, which could be said to take place in his mind—his manner of speaking is responsible for the emergence and development of his character. Mars-Jones controls and manipulates this voice as he explains and demonstrates the techniques of a discipline that fuses aesthetic and scientific terminology, maneuvering deftly in an unmarked area in which the fields are in uneasy symbiosis.

The opening paragraph, which introduces the discipline, is a learned exposition of fundamental facts, replete with references, reasonable and measured in tone. The rational, sensible approach of the speaker, designed to instill confidence, is exemplified by the words, “if applied with care and thoroughness.” Then, in a radical shift in style, the anecdote of the spurned wife’s revenge is told in crisp, descriptive phrases, conversational and vivid in detail, somewhat like a tale told in a pub. The contrast between professorial removal and personal participation sets the style for the flow of the narration, sometimes distant and analytical, sometimes direct and almost delightfully engaged. Scientific examination requires total objectivity; literary criticism that does not distort or completely betray the spirit of literary inspiration may engage the full spectrum of feeling of the critic.

Commentators from previous centuries such as Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence, among others, remain vital for the play of a distinctive, even quirky sensibility on the work that their formidable intelligence has chosen to discuss. The speaker in “Structural Anthropology” has something of this quality, as his objectivity recedes while he relates, with evident relish, the brilliance of the wife’s strategy. The overall effect is the formation and presentation of an individual personality, which, in the course of its narrative and interpretive actions throughout the story, also becomes the agent of the collective unconscious that contains the kind of universal truths that are the ultimate aims of artistic endeavor.