Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Coal Shoveller” is an important work in which Keith Fort has found the ideal form for expressing the problems of many aspiring writers. Although dissatisfied with the old styles—especially realism and naturalism—they cannot find new styles that will liberate them to express themselves. The main theme throughout this story concerns the difficulty of being honest. Its narrator admires many great writers of the past and appreciates that they were great because they wrote what they passionately believed. He wishes to emulate them but without imitating them. As a modern man, however, he finds it difficult to know in what he should believe. Traditional religion has been undermined by science, and socialism has been discredited by its practitioners in Russia, China, and elsewhere.

The narrator’s abortive attempts to concoct a story based on a man shoveling coal are efforts to discover what he himself truly believes. His mind is full of ideas, but he does not know whether he really believes any of them. His indictment of certain anti-intellectual writers suggests that he would agree with William Butler Yeats’s assessment of the modern condition in “The Second Coming” (1921): “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

It might be argued that the theme of “The Coal Shoveller” is the difficulty of finding a theme, because a theme represents what a writer believes. It is appropriate to such an experimental story that its theme and meaning should be the search for...

(The entire section is 631 words.)