Dylan Thomas Thomas, Dylan (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Dylan Thomas 1914–-1953

(Full name Dylan Marlais Thomas) Welsh poet, dramatist, short story writer, and essayist. See also Dylan Thomas Poetry Criticism and Dylan Thomas Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.

Remembered primarily as a poet who both created innovative poetry and lived a dissolute life, Thomas was also the author of such prose works as short stories, radio screenplays, novels, and a drama. Thomas's works, both prose and poetry, are intensely personal, a form of self-discovery. He often dealt with the same themes in varied genres, including the negative aspects of Welsh Christianity, Welsh folklore, fear of death, and sexuality. In his early prose, Thomas frequently relied on imagery rather than plot devices to advance the narrative. While Thomas's talent as a poet was recognized early in his career, his aptness as a writer of short fiction grew only when scholars attempted to assess his prose works in relationship to his entire oeuvre.

Biographical Information

Born in Swansea, Wales, Thomas was the son of an English master at the Swansea Grammar School. English was his favorite academic subject, and he was the editor of the school literary magazine, in which his first short stories appeared. Otherwise, Thomas rebelled against the strictures of a formal education. When he failed his examinations in 1931, he left school at age sixteen. While working for the South Wales Daily Post, an evening newspaper, he acquired reporting skills that later proved useful in writing fiction. In 1934 he moved to London, where he lived a bohemian lifestyle and composed poems and short fiction, which were first published in magazines. In a pub in 1936 he met dancer Caitlin Macnamara, whom he married a year later, beginning a twelve-year relationship that eventually soured under the strain of poverty and Thomas's alcoholism. Alternating between London, where he indulged in excesses, and rural communities, where he wrote his works, Thomas turned to writing stories and radio screenplays to stave off indigency. During World War II, he wrote propaganda scripts for the British government. After the war, Thomas gave popular poetry readings, which turned into a more lucrative enterprise than prose writing. Nevertheless, he was continually on the verge of destitution and was often in an alcoholic stupor which interfered with his writing. While on an American poetry-reading tour in 1953, Thomas died from excessive alcohol consumption.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Known principally as a talented poet, Thomas devoted considerable time to writing short stories, the final versions of which he copied into his “Red Notebook,” a personal journal from which he read aloud. In such stories as “Map of Love” and “A Prospect of the Sea” Thomas dealt with sexual initiation, while in “The Holy Six,” “The Burning Baby,” “The Enemies,” and “The Tree,” he portrayed Christianity run amok. These stories, from what commentators consider Thomas's early period, demonstrate a style that relies heavily on the fantastic, the poetic, and the shocking. They also have little use for plot in the traditional sense and rely instead on images and dreams to connect the action. Although Thomas attempted during the late 1930s to interest a publisher in a collection of short stories, he was unsuccessful because editors objected to what they considered vulgar language and offensive material. Consequently, while the collection The Map of Love appeared in 1939 and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in 1940, it was not until after Thomas's death that a number of his more controversial stories appeared in book form. Portrait of the Artist, a collection of ten stories written while the couple lived in the Welsh coastal village of Laugharne in 1938 and 1939, marks the beginning of Thomas's more mature style. It reflects Thomas's experiences of marriage and family, as well as the outbreak of continental war. The stories focus on a single protagonist, Thomas, who recounts adventures in a more naturalistic style than his previously figurative prose style in which imagery dominated plot. In “The Peaches” the narrator learns of social class divisions, in “A Visit to Grandpa's” of old age and loneliness, in “Extraordinary Little Cough” of masculinity, and in “Old Garbo” of the tragic consequences of excessive drunkenness. During the 1940s Thomas wrote scripts for the BBC Wales Children's Hour, including “A Child's Memories of Christmas in Wales,” which was later published in book form and became a children's classic. After writing the radio drama Under Milk Wood (1954), Thomas attempted to write an autobiographical novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, but it was left unfinished at his death. Published posthumously in 1955 in a collection with several stories, Adventures is treated by some scholars as a series of short stories and by others as a novel.

Critical Reception

Thomas's short stories remain secondary to his poetry in critical acclaim. Derek Stanford judged Thomas's prose works valuable not on their own merits but because of the “clues they offer to Thomas's literary temperament, and the confirmation of his mode of thought in verse.” Critics such as Jacob Korg have noted the progression of Thomas's style from the early stories to those published in Portrait of the Artist and later. Several critics, among them Stanford, John Ackerman, and Linden Peach, have focused on Thomas's use of imagery in his poetry and prose. According to Ackerman, in the stories written between 1934 and 1939, Thomas employed themes and techniques common to his early poetry: nostalgic childhood images and fantasies combined with biblical thought and imagery to make “a poet's prose—eloquent, sensuous, strongly rhythmic, and rich in metaphor.” Both Rys Davies and Peter Levi, writing at opposite ends of a forty-year span, determined that Thomas never arrived at a mature prose style.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Map of Love 1939

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog 1940

Quite Early One Morning 1954

Adventures in the Skin Trade, and Other Stories 1955

Selected Writings of Dylan Thomas 1970

Collected Stories 1980

18 Poems (poetry) 1934

Twenty-Five Poems (poetry) 1936

New Poems (poetry) 1943

Collected Poems, 1934–1952 (poetry) 1952

Deaths and Entrances (poetry) 1952

In Country Sleep (poetry) 1952

Under Milk Wood (drama) 1954

Derek Stanford (essay date 1954)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prose and Drama,” in Dylan Thomas, Neville Spearman, 1954, pp. 155–88.

[In the excerpt below, Stanford describes Thomas's provocative use of language in the stories of Map of Love and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.]


The seven stories in The Map of Love exhibit a typical young man's prose: not the prose of a young poet writing about poetry, but that of a poet using prose to convey what he has generally expressed in verse. (Remove the formal device of narrative and the tales in The Map of Love might all have been poems from that or previous volumes.) The value of these first stories, I should say, is...

(The entire section is 3987 words.)

John Ackerman (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Prose Interlude: The Early Stories,” in Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work, Oxford University Press, 1964, pp. 90–103.

[In the following excerpt, Ackerman compares the themes and use of language in Thomas's early short stories, written between 1934 and 1939, to those of his early poetry.]

Thomas's prose is essentially a poet's prose—eloquent, sensuous, strongly rhythmic, and rich in metaphor. It shares the usual Anglo-Welsh attitudes: it is nostalgic, impassioned, personal, and apocalyptic. The writing draws much upon Biblical thought and imagery, and childhood is a dominant theme. Its style owes much to Welsh pulpit oratory and, for its full subtlety,...

(The entire section is 4882 words.)

Peter Levi (review date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gruesome,” in Spectator, London, July 9, 1983, pp. 22–3.

[In the following review of Thomas's Collected Stories, Levi decides that Thomas never matured as a prose writer.]

Dylan Thomas might have been alive today. He never lived to be 40; he died 30 years ago—of playing a role it is impossible to sustain through middle age, and perhaps hard to sustain at all in the modern world. Indeed the very idea of Dylan Thomas shows how our world has altered. The seedily respectable, prewar, provincial territory of Cwmdonkin Drive is more utterly lost now than the old moods of Soho or the purity of rural Wales.

You might flick through the...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Brian Stonehill (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 6, 1985, p. 1, 5.

[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Stonehill provides a brief appreciation.]

What is the gift that some storytellers have of immediately enwrapping us? A walk through this collection by a storyteller better known as one of the great poets of our century offers a few clues to that question.

Dylan Thomas [in The Collected Stories] writes from the child in himself to the child in us, without disturbing the skeptical adult selves that stand sentry over precious childhood memories. He re-creates the intense colors, the...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Linden Peach (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Religion, Repression and Sexual Violence,” in The Prose Writing of Dylan Thomas, Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 15–45.

[From a study of religion, repression, and sexual violence, Peach discusses in the essay below, Thomas's use of imagery and symbolism to express the darker side of sexuality.]

Late in the Spring, Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends.

(Saul Bellow, Herzog)

Shall we never get rid of this Past. … In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled...

(The entire section is 7720 words.)

Margaret Moan Rowe (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Living ‘under the shadow of the bowler’: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog,” in Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art, edited by Alan Bold, Vision Press, 1990, pp. 125–36.

[In the following excerpt, Rowe maintains that Thomas refashioned his own middle-class childhood in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog to make it more palatable.]

Dylan Thomas is pre-eminently a rememberer; in both his poetry and prose, as John Wain has noted, ‘his great theme is nostalgia’.1 Indeed his best fiction, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, is a celebration of his childhood, adolescence and young manhood in Swansea. The ten...

(The entire section is 4208 words.)

Jacob Korg (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stories and Dramas,” in Dylan Thomas, Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Korg analyzes the poetic and straightforward narrative styles that characterize Thomas's stories.]


Thomas was as prolific a writer of prose as he was of verse. He published the first of his short stories, “After the Fair,” in March 1934, less than a year after his earliest poems had appeared, and he continued to write prose until his death. In addition to his numerous short stories, the uncompleted novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, three prose dramas, the radio play, Under Milk Wood, and several film scripts, he wrote book...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Gaston, Georg. Dylan Thomas: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, 213 p.

A compilation of secondary sources.

Maud, Ralph. Dylan Thomas in Print: A Bibliographical History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, 261 p.

An extensive listing of primary and secondary sources.

Rolph, J. Alexander. Dylan Thomas: A Bibliography. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1956, 108 p.

This early bibliography of works by and about Thomas includes illustrations.


Ackerman, John. Dylan Thomas: His...

(The entire section is 431 words.)