The Eighteenth Century - Short Fiction Analysis


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The eighteenth century did not produce the first modern short story as it is known today as an art form, a clearly defined genre. Seldom during the century did a story have the firm story line and economy of effect that would justify labeling it a short story in the modern sense; a story was concerned with how an experience is valued and what difference it makes to someone, not merely what is said and done. A surprising number of literary historians agree that the birth of the genre did not occur until the early nineteenth century, in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), by Washington Irving.

As Benjamin Boyce states in his essay “Eighteenth-Century Short Fiction,” however, for “the present discussion ‘short fiction’ includes any kind of imaginative writing about people that contains or implies action and that does not exceed in length 12,000 words.” Within this definition can be found the vast variety of forms of short fiction that were produced by writers of the eighteenth century. These include fairy tales, Oriental tales, satirical adventure tales, the conte, epistolary fiction, rogue literature, sueño (or dream) fiction, essays, moral tracts, character sketches, the German Novelle, and the nouvelle or novelette (considered by some critics to be merely a stepchild of the novel, simply a short, uncomplicated novel; for this essay’s purposes, the novelette qualifies as...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

England in 1700 was possibly the most advanced nation in Europe, yet the English scene of 1700 was darkened by political and religious corruption and injustice. Literature was strictly for aristocrats—those “to the manor born.” Public schools were slowly being instituted, but they were few, and most people were unable to read or write. The cities, however, were growing, and the well-to-do were spending less time in their countryseats and more in the cities—more specifically, in the coffeehouses, discussing the latest news from abroad, from Parliament, from society.

Within these conditions was found the germ of the eventual short story proper. The need for a new social expression against the excesses of the Restoration created the personal essay, which attempted not only to address the conflicts of the time but also to chronicle the “talk of the town.” Fictional “talkers” were created by the authors of periodicals. In The Tatler (1709-1711), created by Joseph Addison, and later in the superior The Spectator, created by both Addison and Richard Steele, were found the highest quality of fictional talkers, reflectors of their times. The Spectator was one of the most important periodicals of the century, greatly influencing writers throughout Western Europe and America. The best-known of the characters about whom Mr. Spectator “talks” in The Spectator is Sir Roger de Coverley, a good-natured gentleman who represents surviving feudalism and through whom the vehement opposition between town and country was expressed.

The mixture of fashionable contempt for book learning, blended with shrewd wit, is well represented in the character of amiable, simpleminded Will Wimble, one of Sir Roger’s friends. His character is amazingly fleshed out with gentle satire in the de Coverley papers. Poor Will, younger brother to a baronet, has no estate and naturally no business sense, but he has mastered the craft of idleness. The depiction of English homebred life formed the basic nature of the early eighteenth century story: a graceful realism and the criticism of manners in an attractive satirical style, found especially in Addison’s stories.

The Tatler and The Spectator were the first organs attempting to give form and consistency to the opinions rising out of the social context. Through Addison and Steele, public opinion was founded by a conscious effort of reason and persuasion. The Spectator and its predecessors, with their dual purposes to instruct and/or entertain, were true children of the Enlightenment. Reason and instruction were foremost considerations, and often this made for severe didacticism. Happily, though, the vehicle for instruction was fictional entertainment. That philosophy, consistently followed, is put best in Mr. Spectator’s own words: “The mind ought sometimes to be diverted, that it may return to thinking better” (The Spectator, 102). Short fiction, still dubious and generally unfamiliar as a form of entertainment, played an important role in the success of The Spectator, and in a smaller way, The Tatler, which preceded it.

Through character sketches such as those in the de Coverley papers, the short story began tentatively to detach itself from the essay. The Spectator, unlike earlier periodicals, presented dialogue not merely as a device to present two viewpoints but as a give-and-take between two generally believable characters. Although the short fiction in The Spectator is not always technically well drawn, it did provide embryonic examples of modern narration and developed characters.

Perhaps the best narrative is Addison’s “The Vision of Mizrah” (The Spectator, 159). Oriental tales became enormously popular after Antoine Galland’s translation of Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706- 1708). The Spectator, not surprisingly, capitalized on the form’s influence in Oriental-flavored moral tales such as “The Vision of Mizrah.” Other forms of Oriental tales appeared as “letters” from the Orient, as in Charles de Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722) and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), and as romances—moral, philosophical, or satirical—such as Voltaire’s popular Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749) and Samuel Johnson’s similar Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson (1759).

“The Vision of Mizrah” displays a pleasing mixture of elements—Oriental material, allegory, and dream vision—and showcases Addison’s ability to construct a narrative around a consistent mood and condensed action. A good narrator also controls a story by presenting a scene in its varied details. Addison excels in imaging a scene, and in “The Vision of Mizrah,” the reader is taken successfully by the second paragraph to enjoy the air on the mountaintops above Baghdad.

In Steele’s sketch “The Matchmaker” (The Spectator, 437), realistic details and several characters in motion make it a delightful...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In America during the eighteenth century, all roads did not lead to the novel, as in England. As literary historian Edward J. O’Brien (The Advance of the American Short Story, 1931) theorizes, the answer lies in the difference of temperament and environment between the English (and Europeans) and the Americans. The more impatient and restless temperament of the pioneers, settling the relatively new and largely unexplored nation, and their view that there was little place for leisure in their rough and difficult environment (compare hardworking wealthy landowners in America to the Court and aristocracy of England and Europe in the 1700’s) made the short story much more appealing—being brief and able to condense emotion into a figurative moment as it flies.

The essays of Benjamin Franklin covered a broad range of subject matter, in form and in purpose; it can be said that they kept short fiction creatively alive in the 1700’s in America. He wrote gracefully and urbanely yet could write equally well in the rough school of realism fathered by Defoe. The earthy realism of Franklin’s style is vividly exemplified in one of his essays, “Reflections on Courtship and Marriage,” in which he describes the picture that some women present in the morning, with “frowsy hair hanging in sweaty ringlets, staring like Medusa with her serpents teeth furred and eyes crusted. ”

Influenced by the great periodicals in England, humor and...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In France, as well as America and England, the formal short story—with its exacting demands of narrative structure, content, and development—did not fully develop until well into the nineteenth century. From France, though, at the end of the seventeenth century and through the first half of the eighteenth, came the highest-quality short fiction in Europe and America. Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, leaders in Enlightenment thinking, were producing high quality contes philosophiques, and the nouvelle had replaced the heroic romance in popularity. A short fiction centered on a love intrigue, the nouvelle, though generally longer than most short fiction, showed the move toward shorter pieces and is...

(The entire section is 798 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although it was the novel that became the most popular fictional form in Germany during the “Romantic” end of the eighteenth century, excellent short fiction was produced as well because of the stronger emphasis on the narrative, rediscovered interest in fables, and the relaxed formal structures allowing increased freedom of expression.

The German Novelle, an original romance form of short fiction, was cultivated by the German Romanticists as well. Noteworthy is Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (1795; Conversations of German Emigrants, 1854), with its escapist motif, written for the German periodical Die Hören. It is a framework series of stories intended...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Both Romanticism and the Enlightenment came late to Spain, which was weakened from divisions and the loss of much territory at the beginning of the eighteenth century as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession. Additionally, throughout the century, government censors and inquisitors were vigilant. As late as 1793, for example, a group of intellectuals who wanted to publish a periodical called El Académico made a promise that shows the power of censorship over the press at that time. They proclaimed, “We will say nothing, quote nothing, and become involved in nothing which might cause offence and would rather pass for ignorant in the eyes of some than for men of new ideas.” It was a situation unique to the rest...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

If in Italy, the seventeenth century, a period of the iron despotism of Spain, was a time of stagnation, then the eighteenth was a period of recovery, for Italy was one of the territories lost by Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession. The ancient luster of literature, indeed, was but feebly rekindled, but an invigorating breath pervaded the nation as Spanish dominion disappeared from Italy. People wrote and thought in comparative freedom.

The extinction of the free spirit of the Renaissance was the more unfortunate for Italy, as it arrested the development of speculative and scientific research, which had seemed to be opening up there. Therefore, it was natural that the thrust of Italian literature was toward those...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Anderson, Douglas. The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Discusses the literary and intellectual career of Franklin in his early years; provides a close reading of a number of Franklin texts.

Brooks, Christopher K. “‘Guilty of Being Poor’: Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘No-Account’ Centinel.” English Language Notes 36 (September, 1998): 23-38. Argues that “Private Centinel” in The Citizen of the World is one of the most profound uses of a poor, homeless character in eighteenth-century literature.

Howells, Robin. Disabled...

(The entire section is 310 words.)