The Short Story and Social Reality
Many critics have noted the fact that the short story does not deal with generalized social reality or abstract social values. In fact, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is a diversity or fragmentation of values and people. This geographic and social fragmentation of peoples and values has often been cited as one reason why the short story quickly became popular in nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short-story writers have dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. “The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does.” Ruth Suckow in 1927 also suggested that the chaos and unevenness of American life made the short story a natural expression. Life in America was so multitudinous that “its meaning could be caught only in fragments, perceived only by will-of-the-wisp gleams, preserved only in tiny pieces of perfection.”
More recent comments on the English short story by Wendell V. Harris and Lionel Stevenson suggest somewhat the same reason for the difference between the English short story and the American form. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or “agglomerate” and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. Throughout the nineteenth century in England, the novel predominated. Only writers, like Thomas Hardy, who depicted a relatively simple social milieu, could present a short- story sense of “reality” in his ironic verse narratives. The fragmentation of sensibility did not set in England until about 1880, at which time the short story was seen as the best medium for presenting this fragmentation.
Harris also observes that the 1890’s in England was known as the golden age of the short story, noting that with the fragmentation of sensibility perspective, or “angle of vision,” became most important in fiction, especially the short story, in which instead of a world to enter, as the novel provides, the form presents a vignette to contemplate. Harris has also noted that from Henry Fielding to Thomas Hardy, fiction was defined in England as a “presentation of life in latitudinal or longitudinal completeness.” The “essence of the short story,” on the other hand, says Harris,is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation—detached from the great continuum—at once social and historical the short story is a natural form for the presentation of a moment whose intensity makes it seem outside the ordinary stream of time, or the scene significance is outside the...
(The entire section is 1091 words.)