Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Writers are often concerned with the problem of hope in their stories, for although they are aware of the inevitability of plot, they also want to convey a sense of freedom in their characters. In one of her best-known stories, “Conversation with My Father” (1971), for example, Grace Paley rebels against the inevitability of plot because it vanquishes hope. A basic difference between real life and fiction, Paley suggests, is that real life is open and full of possibility, but a story must move relentlessly toward a predetermined end. Consequently, as much as writers might want their fiction to be “like life,” it can never quite be a similitude of life. The closest that a writer can approach to feeling this sense of similitude is when fictional characters are so fully realized that they seem to take on lives of their own and somehow “get away” from their author. “On Hope” is a self-reflexive fable that, like many of the stories of John Barth and Robert Coover, uses the traditional fable form to explore and lay bare the fictional conventions and techniques that writers always use and readers often take for granted. Holst makes no attempt to interest the reader in the character of the gypsy. The gypsy’s motivation is determined by the stereotyped conventions of “gypsyness,” not by any values particular to himself. The gypsy’s belief in the curse, as well as his conclusion that the monkey’s theft of the diamond three times is determined by fate, reflects the traditional fabulous nature of the story, as well as its self-reflexive character. For, even as the gypsy believes in cosmic fate, the reader is aware that all fictional characters are fated because their actions are determined by the story’s generic conventions.

Given the convention of the curse, the narrator admits that it seems inevitable that the shark will devour the man. However, he also notes that there are three reasons—all of which are in themselves fictional conventions—that may cause the story to end in another way. The first depends...

(The entire section is 527 words.)