George Gissing Gissing, George - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

George Gissing 1857–-1903

English short story writer, novelist, critic, and essayist.

Gissing was a late nineteenth-century author whose short fiction exemplifies the changes that marked the transition from Victorian to modern literature. While his early works display a Dickensian concern for the plight of the poor and a belief in the effectiveness of social reform, later works manifest a distinctly modern sense of pessimism and moral uncertainty. Although Gissing's disillusionment is attributed to personal frustrations rather than to the failure of his Victorian ideology, critics note that his short stories and novels nevertheless express the evolving philosophical awareness of his entire literary generation.

Biographical Information

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Gissing was the eldest son of a drugstore proprietor. When the death of his father when Gissing was thirteen left the family destitute, concerned friends and neighbors established a fund that enabled Gissing and his two brothers to attend a boarding school at Alderly Edge, in the nearby county of Cheshire. Gissing proved to be a brilliant student and thus earned a full scholarship to Owens College. In his final year at the college, he met and fell in love with a sixteen-year-old alcoholic prostitute named Nell Harrison. To support and perhaps reform her, he began to steal from his classmates but was apprehended in May of 1876. He was immediately dismissed from Owens and was sent to America after serving a thirty-day jail sentence.

In America Gissing moved to Chicago and began to write short stories for the local newspapers. In late 1877 he returned to England, planning to earn his living as a writer. He wrote novels throughout the early 1880s, but his books sold poorly. However, with the publication of New Grub Street in 1891, his work began to garner critical and commercial attention. During the last phase of his career Gissing demonstrated his greatest versatility, producing short stories, novels, a travel memoir, criticism, and a fictionalized biography, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. He died from a lung ailment in 1903.

Major Works

Many of Gissing's stories are clearly autobiographical, and employ his recurring thematic concerns: his pessimism regarding human relationships; the repressive nature of familial expectations; class conflict; and the effects of industrialization, especially the loss of religious faith. In his first published story, “Sins of the Fathers,” which appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1877, a middle-class student falls in love with an impoverished prostitute named Laura. As their relationship intensifies, the boy's father sends him to America, where he marries a woman of his own class. In a twist of fate, one night he attends a play in which Laura appears as a chorus girl. He meets with her only to find he still is attracted to her. Knowing that the relationship is doomed, Laura pulls him into the river and they die together. In a later story, “The House of Cobwebs,” an aspiring writer named Goldthorpe moves into a run-down house owned by a man named Spicer. The two men form a peaceful and satisfying domestic partnership, but after Goldthorpe finishes his novel he falls ill; the doctor advises him to move to his mother's house and out of his “unhealthy” environment. After his recovery, he learns that Spicer has fallen ill and the house has been demolished, presumably a just punishment for a relationship that transgresses social conventions. Recently, there has been an effort to bring to light all of Gissing's short fiction, as evinced by the 1992 publication of Lost in America, a collection of several rare stories that originally appeared in American newspapers.

Critical Reception

Critics continue to debate Gissing's contribution to the short story genre. Although his early stories were derided as gloomy and drab, they were also noted for their lack of sentimentality and melodrama. Scholars agree that one of the most outstanding characteristics of Gissing's fiction is its intensely autobiographical nature, and many critics assert that his works can only be fully understood when considered in the context of his life. His insistence upon the importance of environmental factors in the development of his characters has led Gissing's name to be linked with that of Emile Zola. His stories were deemed mature and complex character studies, replete with deft insights into human perception and behavior. Most commentators agree that Gissing's short fiction has a clear place in English literary and social history, because it illuminates the economic and psychological currents of an era as well as the harsh social circumstances and realities of the day.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Human Odds and Ends (short stories and sketches) 1898

The House of Cobwebs, and Other Stories 1906

The Sins of the Fathers 1924

Brownie 1931

Stories and Sketches (short stories and sketches) 1938

George Gissing: Lost Stories from America 1992

The Day of Silence, and Other Stories 1993

Workers in the Dawn (novel) 1880

The Unclassed (novel) 1884

Demos (novel) 1886

Isabel Clarendon (novel) 1886

Thyrza (novel) 1887

A Life's Morning (novel) 1888

The Nether World (novel) 1889

The Emancipated (novel) 1890

New Grub Street (novel) 1891

Born in Exile (novel) 1892

Denzil Quarrier (novel) 1892

The Odd Women (novel) 1893

In the Year of Jubilee (novel) 1894

Eve's Ransom (novel) 1895

The Paying Guest (novel) 1895

Sleeping Fires (novel) 1895

The Whirlpool (novel) 1897

Charles Dickens (criticism) 1898

The Town Traveller (novel) 1898

The Crown of Life (novel) 1899

By the Ionian Sea (travel essays) 1901

Our Friend the Charlatan (novel) 1901

The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (novel) 1903

Will Warburton (novel) 1905

London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England: The Diary of George Gissing, Novelist (diary) 1978

The Academy (review date 1906)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The House of Cobwebs, in The Academy, Vol. 70, No. 1776, May 19, 1906, p. 479.

[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of The House of Cobwebs.]

We are not of those whose pleasure in a man's work is necessarily increased by an intimate acquaintance with the circumstances of his life, yet it were idle to deny the power of that faculty (none the less irresistible for being frequently unconscious) which some writers have of exciting their readers' curiosity, and we well remember wondering, on taking up a book of George Gissing's for the first time, what manner of man this might be who could write with such bitter suavity, with such delicate irony, of a milieu which he appeared to know well and thoroughly to detest. The few hard, essential facts which invested Gissing's career with a not quite ordinary pathos are now well known to all who care enough to estimate an achievement standing in some sense apart; but the appearance of these fifteen short stories, aptly epitomising his personal attitude towards life as he found it, in conjunction with a strenuously condensed “chronological survey” of his work, justify a brief recapitulation. Educated at Lindow Grove School at Alderley and at Ownes College, Manchester, Gissing found himself at twenty, utterly poor and without a shred of influence, in London. Talented, delicate, and sensitive, of a shy geniality apt to freeze at an uncertain temperature into proud reserve, with a strong taste for the high romantic places of history, and a loathing for the sordid accompaniments of latter-day poverty, he seems to have had no assets but a fine comprehension of the significance of Dickens in English literature, a dogged industry, and the power begotten of dire necessity to pierce, with a pen naturally pointed for delicate introspection and æsthetic analysis, the tortured lives of the educated poor. In stress and poverty he produced his first book. Workers in the Dawn, in 1880. For three years he suffered under various yokes imposed by the necessity...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Thomas Seccombe (essay date 1906)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The House of Cobwebs, in Gissing: The Critical Heritage, edited by Pierre Coustillas and Colin Partridge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 509-17.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published as the introduction to the 1906 edition of The House of Cobwebs, Seccombe surveys the distinctive qualities of Gissing's fiction and places him in context with other nineteenth-century English authors.]

In England during the sixties and seventies of last century the world of books was dominated by one Gargantuan type of fiction. The terms book and novel became almost synonymous in houses which were not Puritan, yet where...

(The entire section is 3569 words.)

Frank Swinnerton (essay date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Short Stories,” in George Gissing: A Critical Study, Kennikat Press, 1923, pp. 125-36.

[In the following essay, Swinnerton offers a mixed assessment of Gissing's short fiction, but praises his adept characterization, particularly his female characters.]

The art of the short story, it has been sufficiently explained by critics who specialise in short stories, is very different from that of the novel. Mr. Max Beerbohm, in a reckless mood, once said that as the brick was to the house, so was the short story to the long one (and it is true that the novel makes in every way greater demands upon the imagination, the invention, and the staying powers of the...

(The entire section is 2631 words.)

Conrad Aiken (essay date 1927)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Victim of Circumstances, in The Dial, Vol. LXXXIII, December, 1927, pp. 512-14.

[In the following review, Aiken discusses Gissing's later works.]

To this collection of short stories by George Gissing, “never before issued in book form,” Mr Alfred Gissing contributes a preface, which is largely a discussion of “realism” in fiction; and in this preface Mr Gissing moves, a little naïvely, to the conclusion that the author of the Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft was something more, or better, than a mere realist, because his stories contained a “moral,” or here and there pointed to a “higher truth.” At this date, it...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Q. D. Leavis (essay date 1938)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gissing and the English Novel,” in Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1938, pp. 73-81.

[In the following review of Stories and Sketches, Leavis discusses the biographical background to Gissing's fiction.]

These stories, which mistaken piety must have induced Mr. A. C. Gissing to publish, will unfortunately persuade no one to read George Gissing who is not already interested in him. They exhibit chiefly his weaknesses and give no indication of his virtues. This is nothing like as interesting a volume of stories as the better of his other two collections, The House of Cobwebs, which ought by now to have been put into one of...

(The entire section is 3459 words.)

Elsie B. Adams (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gissing's Allegorical ‘House of Cobwebs,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 324-26.

[In the following essay, Adams deems Gissing's short story “The House of Cobwebs” as an allegory depicting the fate of the artist in society.]

Literary critics class George Gissing most frequently with the realistic-naturalistic writers of the late nineteenth century. However, as Wendell V. Harris has noted in “An Approach to Gissing's Short Stories,” Gissing's stories lack “the omnipresent greyness and bitterness of tone” usually attributed to late nineteenth-century realistic fiction and contain instead warmth of tone,...

(The entire section is 1556 words.)

Thomas C. Ware (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jerusalem Artichokes in Gissing's Garden: A Postscript to the Allegorical Readings of ‘House of Cobwebs’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 86-9.

[In the following essay, Ware expounds on the allegorical meaning of the Jerusalem artichokes in “The House of Cobwebs.”]

In her recent note in Studies in Short Fiction,1 Miss Elsie B. Adams convincingly makes the point that in “The House of Cobwebs” George Gissing's principal theme is the difficulty (perhaps even the inability) of the artist's survival in the rank domesticity of the middle-class world. Such a world is symbolized in this work by the...

(The entire section is 1408 words.)

Robert L. Selig (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Short Stories,” in George Gissing, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 112-23.

[In the following essay, Selig outlines the themes and plots of Gissing's most accomplished short stories: “A Victim of Circumstances,” “Comrades in Arms,” “The Schoolmaster's Vision,” and “The House of Cobwebs.”]

George Gissing's still-underrated short stories deserve to rank among the best of the late-Victorian era. He wrote some 110 in all, many very fine. Once he had mastered the art of brief narrative, it allowed him to break away from the wills, rival lovers, and theatrical climaxes that often clutter his novels. His finest short stories end, not with a...

(The entire section is 4177 words.)

Penelope A. Lefew (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evidence of a Dickensian Gissing in ‘Joseph Yates' Temptation’,” in English Language Notes,Vol. XXVI, No. 3, March, 1989, pp. 82-7.

[In the following essay, Lefew traces the influence of Charles Dickens on Gissing as demonstrated in “Joseph Yates' Temptation.”]

Seven years after the death of Charles Dickens, George Robert Gissing found himself penniless and starving in Chicago, Illinois, having left his native England following a brief imprisonment for stealing money to support his prostitute-lover, Marianne Helen (“Nell”) Harrison. During his visit to the American midwest, Gissing wrote several short stories and sold them to various Chicago...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)

Robert L. Selig (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gissing's Exile in America,” in George Gissing: Lost Stories from America, edited by Robert L. Selig, Edwin Mellen Press, 1992, pp. 1-18.

[In the following introduction, Selig investigates the circumstances surrounding the writing of Gissing's American stories, and asserts that “his large body of fiction accepted in America paved the way later for Gissing's success.”]

In 1876 an eighteen-year-old George Gissing, later to become a major English novelist, disgraced himself so utterly that friends shipped him off to America, far from the shame of his petty criminal acts. Without knowing the squalid details of this scandal, one cannot even start to...

(The entire section is 9748 words.)

Pierre Coustillas (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Day of Silence and Other Stories, edited by Pierre Coustillas, J. M. Dent, 1993, pp. xiv-xx.

[In the following essay, Coustillas provides a thematic analysis of the short fiction comprising The Day of Silence and Other Stories.]

Despite the considerable interest in George Gissing's life and works in the last four decades—witness the steady flow of biographies and critical studies, of new editions and translations of his novels—his short stories have received very little attention from publishers and critics. Ten years ago Robert L. Selig deplored the situation, observing that in his opinion ‘the author's short stories deserve...

(The entire section is 2725 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Collie, Michael. George Gissing: A Bibliographical Study. Winchester, England: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1985, 167 p.

Comprehensive information regarding the composition, sale, and publication of Gissing's works, including the locations of extant manuscripts.

Coustillas, Pierre. “Gissing's Short Stories: A Bibliography.” English Literature in Transition 7, No. 2 (1964): 59-72.

Provides a primary bibliography of Gissing's short fiction, including Japanese translations.


Collie, Michael. George Gissing: A Biography. Folkestone,...

(The entire section is 262 words.)