Has the concept and, focus of the short story changed?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The short story has come into its own long after the first "novel" was published, and while the novel takes the reader on fantastic and often enlightening journeys, the short story is in some ways more powerful because it can say so much in an extremely abbreviated form.

A classic short story is:

...a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry.

Although this definition is offered for the classic American short story, I find that this is the case for the majority of tales I have read. The author demonstrates his or her "artistry" in portraying characters who speak to us of situations or people very similar to those we know, or may describe events and individuals that could only be found in our imaginations. These authors are able to tell a "big" story with a limited number of pages, but often can still leave the reader with wonder, curiosity, fear and even dismay. William Faulkner's "A Rose For Emily" seems to be a story of life in the South in an era long gone, but it turns out to be a classic "horror" story, with an "unlikely villain." Liam O'Flaherty's "The Sniper" and Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" are also classics that surprise the reader with characters and events that make the heart race and stop us in our tracks. Is anyone better and making the skin crawl than Edgar Allan Poe in short stories such as "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Tell-tale Heart?"

Short story authors offer a slice-of-life, even if it is not a life of reality, but one of possibilities. "Brothers Are the Same" by Beryl Markham speaks of the nature of a brotherhood that transcends a blood tie; Shirley Jackson's famous story "The Lottery" puzzles and horrifies, while "Charles" entertains us. Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" masterfully demonstrates the importance of freedom, as "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker and "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin discuss more serious themes of knowing where one comes from and the struggle to find oneself in the world, respectively. Mark Twain demonstrates the art of storytelling, while displaying his wit and mastery of language to describe the "exploits" of a gambler in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

There are thousands of stories that speak to the essence of the human condition. Others challenge our view of the world. Many demand the use of our imagination, while some make us think or laugh...and some stories are a combination of several of these characteristics. While the title of "classic" is reserved for something that has withstood the test of time, the genre of the short story is classic in that it, too, has withstood the test of time. While the topics may broaden to include many more issues than in the past, it can safely be said that this is only because society has changed and the stories mirror these changes. The short story reflects the human condition and/or life truths: this continues to be the case—as constant as human existence on this planet is. As a reflection of life and people, the short story can never exist alone or in a vacuum, but is a result of the world that revolves around it.

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