Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Austin’s story uses a documentary format, distancing the reader from the events by presenting them in a summary form, carefully rearranged by an intermediary. This method of literary presentation was very common in the early nineteenth century, when tellers of tales—especially tall tales—found it a useful means of advertising the “authenticity” of their narrations and bidding for an extra measure of plausibility. Because modern readers have become much more accustomed to the impostures of fiction and much more sympathetic to literary invention, the documentary method has fallen into disuse, but it has several virtues that modern storytelling methods sometimes strive in vain to reproduce. Austin’s tale has a wonderful economy, covering an enormous reach of narrative ground at a very rapid pace, with admirable efficiency.

The cost of this kind of economy is a lack of involvement with the characters, but Peter Rugg’s plight is the kind of phenomenon that is best observed at a contemplative distance, with calculated objectivity. He is a mystery and a symbol as well as a pitiable creature; it is perhaps as well that the reader cannot get very close to him. Although the narrative technique used in the tale has fallen out of fashion, it is certainly arguable that individuals such as Peter Rugg are most usefully observed by a viewpoint character whose attitude is calmly detached, scrupulously clinical, and determinedly analytical.


(The entire section is 531 words.)