The Short Story

The title of John Bayley’s tenth book of criticism is perhaps somewhat misleading in that it suggests a historical overview of the growth and development of the short story over the century preceding his book’s publication. What Bayley has provided, however, is something far more valuable than a chronological overview of short-story schools, influences, successes, and failures: a contribution to the relatively small corpus of short-story theory. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837), an essay that included the famous dictum that a short story must produce a “single effect,” short-story theory has made surprisingly little progress. Most of the significant criticism since Poe could be contained between the covers of a modest volume, and much of it would be in the form of occasional prefaces, reviews, and introductions by practitioners of the form. Academics, while often interested in examining individual authors or stories, or in tracing various lines of development in the growth of the form, have been remarkably silent on theoretical issues. The novel, by contrast, has been repeatedly and minutely examined in all of its aspects, so that a bibliography of theoretical works on it would be several times larger than the slender one Bayley appends to his study of the short story.

Perhaps the relative paucity of works about the short story can be traced at least in part to the difficulty any writer faces when dealing with the form. Whereas the list of essential novels is relatively short and, on the whole, part of every scholar’s basic training, there is no comparable canon of short stories outside the hefty anthologies compiled for undergraduate courses. To be sure, the important writers of stories are generally acknowledged; nevertheless, it would be an impossible task to identify a “representative” story or even group of stories for each author. In short, the potential critic of the short story faces a formidable problem of selection: which stories to choose for criticism and, from these, which to assume the audience has read. Bayley handles this problem in about the only way possible, by providing unobtrusive summaries of the stories he selects for discussion. Still, this method is never wholly satisfactory, however skillful the critic. The reader who wants to grasp the full force of Bayley’s analyses and theoretical probings will be well advised to read or reread the stories central to his argument: Henry James’s “A Landscape-Painter,” Rudyard Kipling’s “Mary Postgate” and “Mrs. Bathhurst,” Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” D. H. Lawrence’s “The Blind Man,” Thomas Hardy’s “On the Western Circuit,” James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and Elizabeth Bowen’s “Mysterious Kor.” These are by no means all the stories Bayley analyzes or alludes to, nor do they constitute a formidable reading list; yet it will be the rare reader who has read, much less who remembers in any detail, all the stories on even this very short list. Discussions of the story can easily founder for lack of an agreed-upon canon of specimens for examination.

The critic who resolves to forge ahead in spite of this difficulty faces yet another: how to define the genre under consideration. Definitions of the short story abound, but there is no general agreement about the form, not even as to how long a story may be and still be “short.” Beyond such issues is the old question whether the story is more akin to the novel or to poetry.

Bayley recognizes and addresses these questions in the opening pages of his study, without resolving them entirely. The fact that he acknowledges them at all, however, places him with an apparently diminishing number of “traditional” critics, unmoved by the claims of deconstructionists and other poststructuralist critics. Indeed, Bayley gamely confronts their claims that every text is merely a verbal construct, sufficient unto itself and referable to nothing outside its own boundaries. His rebuttal is rather brief and sketchy, but his conclusion is an unambiguous rejection of the formalists’ claims: “Art can only work with total success by conjuring a world which is its opposite, which is dedicated wholly to moments in life.” Unfortunately, the rest of Bayley’s opening chapter on theory is equally difficult to follow, even though the conclusions are clearly stated. While examining the “short story effect” in William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and “The Leach Gatherer,” as well as in Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” and “Dockery and Son,” he contrasts the domain of art with the “mystery” of life outside art, concluding that the essence of the short story (which can be found in other genres as well) lies in its “epiphany” and its “solutionlessness”—in a word, in its avoidance of conclusiveness and certainty. His...

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