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


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.