The Emergence of the Short Story in the Nineteenth Century Essay - Critical Essays

The Emergence of the Short Story in the Nineteenth Century


The Emergence of the Short Story in the Nineteenth Century

Generally viewed by scholars as an invention of the nineteenth century, the modern short story has been described as a compact prose narrative designed to elicit a singular and unified emotional response. As such, critics have made formal distinctions between the short story and its generic predecessor, the tale, a short narrative sometimes of oral origin. Likewise, commentators have contrasted the short story with the lengthier novella and novel, both of which typically feature a greater complexity of themes, multiple characters, and intersecting lines of plot. European and American writers first articulated the formal qualities of the modern short story in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, which coincided with the rapid proliferation of periodical publication in the industrializing nations of the western world at this time, and thus it is thought to have been broadly influenced by economic as well as literary stimuli. Early innovations in the genre appeared in the short fictional prose of such writers as Prosper Mérimée, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walter Scott, and Nikolai Gogol, to name only a few. Following differing but parallel lines of development in France, the United States, Britain, Russia, and elsewhere, the short story is traditionally thought to have reached a peak of maturity in continental Europe during the late nineteenth century with the Naturalistic pieces of Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov, and a generation later in English with the publication of outstanding Modernist works in the Anglo-American tradition.

Washington Irving is considered a seminal writer of short fiction in the United States, with his collection of tales called the Sketch Book (1820) often described as a foundational text. Including the outstanding pieces “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Sketch Book foreshadowed the future development of the short story in America with its blend of incisive wit, satire, and narrative virtuosity. After Irving, scholars generally focus on Edgar Allan Poe as a crucial figure in the development of the short story. In his 1842 essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1837) Poe outlined the principal features of the genre, claiming that it should be readable in one sitting and that its effect, similar to that of lyric poetry, should be singular and total, designed to evoke a primary emotional reaction in the reader. Additionally, Poe's writings, such as his seminal stories of psychological horror and detective fiction collected in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) and later volumes, exemplified his evolving theories. Meanwhile, Hawthorne's short stories in Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) offered an innovative blend of allegorical symbolism and internalized character study that, while not immediately successful with American audiences, proved immensely influential. In addition to the psychological works of Hawthorne and Poe, the pieces collected in Herman Melville's Piazza Tales (1856), including the stories “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” illustrated a continued transition toward increased realism, internalized delineation of character, and narrative distance in American prose fiction. Following the Civil War, the short story market in the United States became increasingly dominated by the regional tales of local colorists. Beginning with Bret Harte and his gritty sketches of mining camp life in California, the local color movement developed from the literary efforts of such writers as Harte, George Washington Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Kate Chopin, and many others to depict the daily existence of ordinary Americans in prose fiction. Portraying the varied regional settings of provincial America with near-journalistic verisimilitude, the local color authors were broadly successful, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s, although the movement had largely run its course by the turn of the century. About this time, William Dean Howells expressed a feeling, shared by many at the time, that American writers on the whole had taken the short story form nearest to perfection. While this assertion remains open to debate, scholars have since agreed that the new genre was eminently suited to the tastes of the reading public in the United States during the nineteenth century.

The development of short narrative prose in nineteenth-century England was hindered by the popularity of the sprawling Victorian novel. In many cases the proponents of the British short story were themselves dedicated novelists, figures like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, who favored this lengthier and more expansive form. The creation of condensed narratives designed to produce an immediate emotional response, however, was not uncommon. Sir Walter Scott, another writer more generally remembered for his novels, offered a significant precursor of the modern short story in Britain with “The Two Drovers” (1827). Cited for rising above the level of mere anecdote to produce a simple yet totalizing thematic effect, the story sought to elicit what critics would later view as the defining quality of the modern short story. By the 1830s, compact tales of Gothic horror by writers like Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the Anglo-Irish Sheridan Le Fanu began to appear in British literary magazines and increasingly captured the attention of reading audiences. Scholars have noted, however, that the nineteenth-century highpoint of British short fiction would not arrive until the last quarter of the century and the publication of realistic sketches set in exotic locales by Robert Louis Stevenson and later by Rudyard Kipling.

The development of the short story in nineteenth-century France and Russia can generally be aligned with the gradual predominance of the Naturalist mode in prose fiction. In France, the compact and detached narratives of Prosper Mérimée redefined the French short story, or conte, in the late 1820s. Mérimée's “Mateo Falcone” (1829), which recounts a violent and tragic clash of honor between father and son with lucid simplicity and economy, is usually considered a pivotal piece. Other significant short stories were composed by Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert, whose short fiction reflects in miniature the artistic achievements usually associated with their more well-known contributions to the realistic novel. Additional French short-story writers of note include Alfred du Musset, Alphonse Daudet, and Théophile Gautier. While acknowledging the accomplishments of these and other writers, many critics have reserved their highest esteem for the famed realistic stories of Guy de Maupassant, who in the 1880s and early 1890s concentrated his talents in the genre, effectively liberating it from the last vestiges of Romanticism to produce startling, lyrical stories admired for their clarity, unity, and compression. In two of his most famous pieces, “Boule de suif” (1880; “Ball of Fat”) and “La Parure” (1884; “The Necklace”), Maupassant produced penetrating studies of character, and with them is thought to have perfected the realistic short story in the late nineteenth century. The development of Russian short fiction followed a similar pattern. Mid-century innovators such as Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Aleksandr Pushkin published works of increasing realism and stylistic precision, and in so doing formed a tradition that was to culminate in the detailed, observant, and often ironic sketches of daily life found in the prose masterpieces of Anton Chekhov. Elsewhere in Europe and in other parts of the globe, the short story genre followed comparable trends, in large part reflected in stylistic developments associated with the shift from Romanticism to Realism and Naturalism which was united with the contributions of a regionalist impulse inspired by the local color writers.

Representative Works

Machado de Assis
“Missa do Galo” (short story) 1899

Honoré de Balzac
“El Verdugo” (short story) 1830

Ambrose Bierce
In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (short stories) 1891

Edward Bulwer-Lytton
“The Haunters and the Haunted” (short story) 1859

George Washington Cable
Old Creole Days (short stories) 1879

Anton Chekhov
“Poceluj” [“The Kiss”] (short story) 1887

Lydia Maria Child
“The Quadroons” (short story) 1842

Kate Chopin
Bayou Folk (short stories) 1894

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain)
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (short story) 1865

Alphonse Daudet
Lettres de mon moulin: Impressions et souvenirs [Letters from My Mill] (short stories) 1869

Esteban Echeverria
“El matadero” (short story) 1838

Gustave Flaubert
Trois contes [Three Tales] (short stories) 1877

Elizabeth Gaskell
“The Old Nurse's Story” (short story) 1852

Théophile Gautier
“Une nuit de Cléopâtre” [“One of Cleopatra's Nights”] (short story) 1838

Nikolai Gogol
“Shinel” [“The Overcoat”] (short story) 1842

Sarah Josepha Hale
“The Village Schoolmistress” (short story) 1829

Thomas Hardy
“The Three Strangers” (short story) 1883

Bret Harte
“The Luck of Roaring Camp” (short story) 1868

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Twice-Told Tales (short stories) 1837
Mosses from an Old Manse (short stories) 1846

E. T. A. Hoffmann
Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier. 2 vols. (short stories) 1814-15

Washington Irving
Sketch Book (short stories) 1820

Henry James
A Passionate Pilgrim (short stories) 1875

Grace King
Tales of a Time and Place (short stories) 1892

Rudyard Kipling
Plain Tales from the Hills (short stories) 1888

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
“The Familiar” (short story) 1851

Guy de Maupassant
“Boule de suif” [“Ball of Fat”] (short story) 1880
“La Parure” [“The Necklace”] (short story) 1884

Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco
Pelo Sertão 1896

Herman Melville
The Piazza Tales (short stories) 1856

Prosper Mérimée
“Mateo Falcone” (short story) 1829

Mary Noailles Murfree
In the Tennessee Mountains (short stories) 1884

Alfred du Musset
Contes et Nouvelles (short stories) 1840

Charles Nodier
“Inès de las Sierras” (short story) 1837

Thomas Nelson Page
In Ole Virginia; or, Marse Chan and Other Stories (short stories) 1887

Edgar Allan Poe
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (short stories) 1840

Aleksandr Pushkin
“Vystrel” [“The Shot”] (short story) 1830

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
“Hand and Soul” (short story) 1850

Walter Scott
“The Two Drovers” (short story) 1827

William Gilmore Simms
The Wigwam and the Cabin (short stories) 1845

Robert Louis Stevenson
“A Lodging for the Night” (short story) 1877
“The Beach at Falesa” (short story) 1891

Elizabeth Stoddard
“The Prescription” (short story) 1864

Harriet Beecher Stowe
“The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House” (short story) 1872

Ivan Turgenev
Zapiski okhotnika [Sportsman's Sketches] (short stories) 1851

Criticism: Overviews

SOURCE: Matthews, Brander. The Philosophy of the Short Story, 11-27. London: Longmans, 1901.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1885, Matthews makes distinctions between the formal qualities of the short story and those of the novel, highlighting the ingenuity, compression, and overall “unity of impression” of the short story.]


If it chance that artists fall to talking about their art, it is the critic's place to listen, that he may pick up a little knowledge. Of late, certain of the novelists of Great Britain and the United States have been discussing the principles and the practice of the art of writing stories. Mr....

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Criticism: The American Short Story

Fred Lewis Pattee (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: Pattee, Fred Lewis. “The Discovery of the ‘Short-Story.’” In The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey, pp. 291-306. New York: Harper, 1923.

[In the following excerpt, Pattee explores the work of several notable American short-story writers of the late nineteenth century, including Brander Matthews, W. D. Howells, Frank R. Stockton, Henry Cuyler Bunner, and Ambrose Bierce.]


The term “short story” (hyphenated as Matthews advised, or unhyphenated) as used to designate an independent literary form and not “a story that is merely short,” is a new addition to critical terminology, as recent, indeed,...

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N. Bryllion Fagin (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: Fagin, N. Bryllion. “The Short Story as a Reflection of American Life.” In America Through the Short Story, edited by N. Bryllion Fagin, pp. 3-19. Boston: Little Brown, 1936.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to his collection of American short fiction, Fagin encapsulates the nineteenth-century development of the short story in the United States, detailing a variety of social, economic, and literary influences on the form.]


Definitions are dangerous. The short story has been defined and re-defined in “exact” terms, as if it were a rigid mold instead of the subtle pattern of a highly fluid art....

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Robert F. Marler (essay date May 1974)

SOURCE: Marler, Robert F. “From Tale to Short Story: The Emergence of a New Genre in the 1850's.” American Literature 46, no. 2 (May 1974): 153-69.

[In the following essay, Marler asserts that the development of American short fiction in the 1850s is evidenced by the decline of the “tale” and the ascent of the “short story,” a significant change that was particularly discernible in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.]

A wave of tales flooded American magazines during the expansive years of the 1850's. As art, all but a few of these works deserve the oblivion that time has bestowed, but because of them the period from 1850...

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Eugene Current-Garcia (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Current-Garcia, Eugene. “Irving Sets the Pattern.” In The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History, pp. 25-41. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Current-Garcia focuses on the tales and sketches of Washington Irving, suggesting that while Irving “did not actually invent the short story, he set the pattern for the artistic re-creation of common experience in short fictional form” that was later employed and improved by Poe and Hawthorne.]

Did the American short story actually begin “in 1819 with Washington Irving,”1 as Pattee flatly asserts, or did Irving merely point the way toward its origin in the three...

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Andrew Levy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Levy, Andrew. “Poe's Magazine.” In The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story, pp. 10-26. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Levy details Edgar Allan Poe's formative influence on the American short story by examining the economic and artistic ideals of his proposed literary magazine.]

Naming is how the world enlarges itself. We might try the same with the thing at hand, calling it poe, for instance. “Me, I write poes,” one could say.

Russell Banks, “Toward a New Form,” Sudden Fiction, ed. Shapard and Thomas (1986) 245.


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Criticism: The Short Story In Great Britain And Ireland

Wendell V. Harris (essay date fall 1968)

SOURCE: Harris, Wendell V. “English Short Fiction in the 19th Century.” Studies in Short Fiction 6, no. 1 (fall 1968): 22‐45.

[In the following excerpt, Harris catalogues the prominent short story writers of the period 1830 to 1880, summarizing their representative works, and concludes with an overview of English and Irish Aesthetic fiction of the late nineteenth century.]

I must confess to having suffered considerable uneasiness in contemplating how to approach the great body of short fiction written during the years from 1830 to 1880; the resulting decision was to abandon all pretense of completeness and simply present a representative selection of significant...

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Dean Baldwin (essay date winter 1993)

SOURCE: Baldwin, Dean. “The Tardy Evolution of the British Short Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 23-33.

[In the following essay, Baldwin probes the economic and social factors that contributed to the slow development of the short story in nineteenth-century Britain.]

One of the more curious anomalies of literary history is why the short story was so late to blossom in Britain. By the 1840s the genre was already established in America, and within two decades it had taken root in Germany, Russia, and France. I am speaking here, of course, of the modern short story, defined loosely as Poe's story of “single effect,” not simply of fiction...

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Chris Baldick (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Baldick, Chris. “The End of the Line: The Family Curse in Shorter Gothic Fiction.” In Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Developments in the Gothic Tradition, edited by Valeria Tinkler-Villani and Peter Davidson, pp. 147-57. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

[In the following essay, Baldick examines several short British Gothic tales of the nineteenth century, focusing on the theme of family degeneration in these works.]

My purpose in this article is to examine briefly the fate of shorter Gothic fiction in nineteenth-century Britain, with particular reference to the degree of coherence it manages to sustain by resort to the theme of dynastic extinction.


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Criticism: Stories By Women In English

Clare Hanson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Hanson, Clare. “The Lifted Veil: Women and Short Fiction in the 1880s and 1890s.” Yearbook of English Studies 26 (1996): 135-42.

[In the following essay, Hanson argues that female short-story writers of the late nineteenth century reoriented the conventional narrative construction of the feminine.]

The short stories of the 1880s and 1890s were written in a period of emphasis on the moment and on the ephemeral, a spell of relaxation from the developmental narrative forms of the nineteenth century. It has often been argued that the popularity of the short form at this time was connected with the fact that this was a period of rapid social change, but Elaine...

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Susan Koppelman (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Koppelman, Susan. “A Preliminary Sketch of the Early History of U.S. Women's Short Stories.” Journal of American Culture 22, no. 2 (summer 1999): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Koppelman documents the generally neglected tradition of short fiction written by American women in the nineteenth century.]

My uncompleted research over the last 26 years has thus far turned up 839 U.S. women who published at least one volume of short stories between 1827, when Sally Wood published Tales of the Night in Portland, Maine, and mid-1993. My list of women who published at least one story between 1822 and 1993 is more than twice as long—more than...

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Criticism: The Short Story In France And Russia

Una A. Taylor (essay date July 1913)

SOURCE: Taylor, Una A. “The Short Story in France, 1800-1900.” Edinburgh Review, no. 445 (July 1913): 137-50.

[In the following essay, Taylor recounts the nineteenth-century shift in the French conte from the aesthetic compositions of Mérimée, Gautier, and Flaubert to the lucid simplicity of Maupassant's short stories.]

It was during the period when the genius of romanticism had saturated the public with exuberant rhetoric and eloquent sentimentalism, typified by Victor Hugo and George Sand, that the contes of Mérimée and Gautier revindicated, in different fashion and by opposite methods, the supreme value of form in composition and of that unity...

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Alfred G. Engstrom (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Engstrom, Alfred G. “The Formal Short Story in France and Its Development before 1850.” In Studies in Language and Literature, edited by George R. Coffman, pp. 249-60. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1945.

[In the following essay, Engstrom defines the French short story (conte), and chronicles early works in this genre by Mérimée, Balzac, and Gautier.]


The first half of the 19th century saw the formal evolution and early development of the modern short story.1 Much of the best brief fiction published during these years differs greatly in both form and content from that which came before; but...

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Albert J. George (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: George, Albert J. “Conclusion.” In Short Fiction in France, 1800-1850, pp. 225-35. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, George focuses on the formal transformation of the French conte into the modern short story in the first half of the nineteenth century.]

During some fifty years of anguished travail, French short fiction slowly groped its way to mature respectability. In that relatively short time it managed to overcome the taint of plebeian origins which for centuries had kept the brief narrative in literary limbo. Long-deferred change overtook time-honored but limited forms when the coincidence of a technological...

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Eileen Baldeshweiler (essay date summer 1969)

SOURCE: Baldeshweiler, Eileen. “The Lyric Short Story: The Sketch of a History.” Studies in Short Fiction 6, no. 4 (summer 1969): 443-53.

[In the following excerpt, Baldeshweiler analyzes the so-called “lyrical” short story as represented by the short fiction of Turgenev and Chekhov.]

When the history of the modern short story is written, it will have to take into account two related developments, tracing the course of the larger mass of narratives that, for purposes of clarification we could term “epical,” and the smaller group which, to accentuate differences, we might call “lyrical.” The larger group of narratives is marked by external action...

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Murray Sachs (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Sachs, Murray. Introduction to The French Short Story in the Nineteenth Century: A Critical Anthology, edited by Murray Sachs, pp. 3-13. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Sachs considers the crystallization of the modern short story in French literature around 1830.]

As a literary art form, the short story emerged even later among the Western literatures than did its late-blooming next-to-kin, the novel. We generally think of the modern novel as an eighteenth-century development, mainly in France and England. But the modern short story did not crystallize into a recognizable genre until a full century later, with the work of...

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Criticism: The Latin American Short Story

Alexandrino E. Severino (essay date winter 1971)

SOURCE: Severino, Alexandrino E. “Major Trends in the Development of the Brazilian Short Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 8, no. 1 (winter 1971): 199-208.

[In the following excerpt, Severino considers the short fictional writings of Machado de Assis and Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco, highlighting developments in the Brazilian short story from the late nineteenth century to the early Modernist period.]

In spite of story telling's being so much a part of Brazilian culture, the short story, as an art form, was slow to develop as an acceptable literary mode of expression. The Brazilian writer, until recently, regarded the short story as being more apt for children's...

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Naomi Lindstrom (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Lindstrom, Naomi. “The Spanish American Short Story from Echeverria to Quiroga.” In The Latin American Short Story: A Critical History, Margaret Sayers Peden, pp. 35-70. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Lindstrom surveys the major nineteenth-century Latin American short-story writers, from the Argentinean Romantic Esteban Echeverria to the Cuban Modernist José Marti.]


Spanish American writing may be said to begin with the letters of Christopher Columbus; yet the first piece that can be considered a short story is Esteban Echeverría's 1838(?) “El matadero” (The Slaughtering Grounds). Looking at the...

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Further Reading


Weixlmann, Joe. American Short-Fiction Criticism and Scholarship, 1959-1977: A Checklist. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982, 625 p.

Provides a bibliography of secondary literature on American short fiction containing nearly 7,000 entries principally organized by author.


Allen, Walter. “The Modern Story: Origins, Background, Affinities.” In The Short Story in English, pp. 3-23. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Lists the principal qualities of the modern short story and describes numerous seminal works of the genre from the nineteenth century.


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