Frank R. Stockton Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1300

Because the masses read Stockton mainly for escape, it was easy for them to miss the underlying thought and sophistication in much of his work. Simply because he was so popular with the general public, Stockton has tended to be ignored by scholars and critics.

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“The Magic Egg”

In “The Magic Egg,” Frank R. Stockton successfully employed a narrative device as old as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments: the frame story. The enclosed tale is about a magic show put on by Herbert Loring for a few carefully invited friends. The first part of the exhibition is a slide show projected on the screen of what Loring calls “fireworks,” a kind of kaleidoscope arrangement of pieces of colored glass which form, by means of mirrors and lights, into fascinating patterns. After half an hour of this, the host brings out a table upon which he places a box containing an egg. When he touches the egg with a wand, it hatches into a downy chick that continues to grow until it is an enormous cock. Flapping his wings, the cock ascends to a chair placed upon the table for that purpose, his weight nearly tipping it over. The audience stands, cheers, and becomes extremely excited. Then the magician reverses the growth process and the bird grows smaller and smaller until it enters the egg again, is put back into the box, and the host leaves the stage.

The frame narrative tells how the audience assembled at the Unicorn Club by invitation at three o’clock on a January afternoon has to wait fifteen minutes, because Loring sees that two reserved seats in the front row have not yet been filled. Because the audience is becoming restless, Loring decides to begin even though someone important has not yet arrived. A few minutes after the fireworks part of the show, Edith Starr, who had been betrothed to Herbert Loring a month before, enters unobtrusively; not wishing to disturb the proceedings to find her front-row reserved seat, she sits in the back behind two large gentlemen who completely conceal her person. Her mother had had a headache so she stayed with her until she fell asleep and then came alone to “see what she could.”

At this point the narration changes from omniscient to first person, as the magician describes what is happening in a long monologue of six and a half pages which concludes the frame story. Elated with his success, Loring uses a metaphor in which he becomes the rooster that he produced. He feels as if he “could fly to the top of that steeple, and flap and crow until all the world heard me.” Since the crowing cock who lords it over the hen yard is soon to be deflated, the emblem of masculine power is thus used as ironic foreshadowing, as well as summing up what preceded.

Herbert and Edith meet in her library. He has been in the habit of calling on her every night, so this is part of the acknowledged routine of the engaged lover. The remainder of the action is unfolded in dialogue. She says that she saw the audience wild with excitement. She, however, saw no chick, nor any full-grown fowl, no box, no wand, and no embroidered cloth. Nothing was what he said it was. “Everything was a sham and a delusion; every word you spoke was untrue. And yet everybody in the theatre, excepting you and me, saw all the things that you said were on the stage.” Loring explains that he had hypnotized the audience with the revolving pieces of colored glass by which he had forced them to strain their eyes upward for half an hour in order to induce hypnotic sleep. He had been careful to invite only “impressionable subjects.” When he was absolutely sure that they were under his influence, he proceeded to test his hypnotic powers with the illusion which they believed they saw.

“Did you intend that I should also be put under that spell?” she asks, indignant that he would have considered taking away her reason and judgment and making her “a mere tool of his will.” She now understands that “nothing was real, not even the little pine table—not even the man!” She says a final good-bye to him, never to see him again, because she wants nothing further to do with a man who would cloud her perceptions, subject her intellect to his own, and force her to believe a lie. As the rejected suitor leaves, he says “And this is what came out of the magic egg!”

This is an inverted fairy tale. The normal formulaic plot would have ended in a marriage whose happy ending was achieved by the use of magical objects. Instead, the magic object here leads to the dissolution of the happy ending because the “princess” has a mind of her own; she is a strong-willed woman who refuses to submit to male domination. The second important aspect of the story is that it is a metaphor for the art of storytelling. The speaker, with his words alone, hypnotizes his audience into suspending their disbelief. His power over them is very like that of a magician, and Stockton, whose enthusiastic public followed his legerdemain through more than a dozen novels, must have at times confronted the ambiguities of his position. The blank page must have seemed the white shell of a magic egg which he alone could “crack” to release wonders that lasted only as long as he was relating them and then, when the cover was closed, went back to being only an object.

“His Wife’s Deceased Sister”

“His Wife’s Deceased Sister” is a charming tale built on the interrelations between life and literature and on the paradox that failure results from too-great success. A newly married author in the elation of his honeymoon writes a moving story. He has supported himself quite adequately up to that time with his fictions, but this story is a masterpiece. The problem is that everything he writes afterward is rejected because it would disappoint the public for not being on the same level which they have come to expect from him. The author then meets a pauper who earlier had the same paradoxical experience of having been ruined by the success of one story. Depressed by his visit to the pauper’s room, where the pauper sleeps on newspapers and lives by grinding heads on pins, the author consults his editor, saying he faces similar ruin. They hit on the device of an assumed name.

Once more the author is making a good, steady income when a son is born. In his first joy of fatherhood, he composes a story which is even superior to “His Wife’s Deceased Sister.” He buries it in a tin box with the edges soldered together, which he hides in the attic with instructions to throw away the key to the solid lock he has purchased for it. The underlying assumption is that great fiction is inspired by happy events in life, which contradicts the Freudian notion that art sublimates suffering. The problem with the plot is that readers may think they have a better solution to the author’s problem. Why not publish the story under his real name? The spark for “His Wife’s Deceased Sister” is clearly Stockton’s own experience with “The Lady or the Tiger?”—which made him a cult figure—and subsequent publication problems that ensued. Although Stockton’s work generally expressed admiration for the middle class, with all its weaknesses, he could also be satirical and interpreted on many levels. In this story, the main character chooses to relegate his masterpiece to oblivion rather than again subject himself to the upheaval of public adulation.

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