Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like many Irish short stories of its generation, “Up the Bare Stairs” relies on the reproduction of a voice for its principal stylistic effect. Mimicry of the voice gives the material immediacy and dramatic impetus. Its use also evokes the age-old Gaelic tradition of storytelling, redolent of hearthside yarning at close of day. “Up the Bare Stairs” is not necessarily structured in terms of an updated version of the traditional scenario. Given the story’s complex sense of personal and cultural legacies, however, it is not inappropriate that hints of such complexity are to be found in the story’s organization.

Use of the voice also influences the story’s pace and development. From a bland, innocuous, casual-sounding opening (like everything else about him, the narrator’s voice is not particularly distinctive), the story builds in intensity. The gradual development, punctuated initially by revelations concerning Nugent’s real identity, gains markedly in momentum and vividness once Nugent takes over as narrator. Indeed, the anonymous narrator’s mistaken assumption that his traveling companion is an actor seems in retrospect a revealing error because Nugent displays a decided flair for the dramatic—and for self-dramatization. His story is not merely a chronicle of unhappiness and how it was overcome; it is a reenactment of the experience of that unhappiness. Nugent’s excoriation of pity—so necessary if the story is to rise above sentimentality—occurs with a sense of shock and completeness appropriate to a dramatic climax.

“Up the Bare Stairs” also cleverly uses the story-within-a-story device. This device emphasizes the story’s dual character, its interaction between different times and temperaments. In addition, however, although Nugent’s narrative is the heart of the story, it does not overwhelm its surrounding framework. The story’s technique articulates in its own right an overall sense of continuity and compatibility as well as a sense of distance and division. Nugent embodies the latter sense, although the anonymous narrator bears witness to the former. The elaborately conceived, but fluently presented, structure of “Up the Bare Stairs” unobtrusively and efficiently underpins the story’s graphic comprehension of how complex and far-reaching simple, early lessons can be.