The Turn of the Twentieth Century: 1880-1920 - Short Fiction Analysis

The United States

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

New literary movements often begin as a reaction against whatever literary movement is predominant at the time, especially when the conventions of the existing movement become stereotyped. Realism, which dominated the writing of fiction during the latter part of the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, was a reaction against the stereotyped sentimentalizing of the Romantic movement that prevailed during the early part of the century. The basic difference between Romantics and realists is a philosophic disagreement about what constitutes significant “reality.” For the Romantics, what was meaningfully real was the ideal or the spiritual, a transcendent objectification of human desire. For the realists, what mattered was the stuff of the physical world.

One of the first results of this focus on the everyday real rather than the transcendent ideal in American fiction was the so- called local color movement; for the more a writer focused on the external world, the more he or she emphasized particular places and people, complete with their habits, customs, language, and idiosyncrasies. Whereas it seldom mattered where in the physical world the stories of Hawthorne and Poe took place (for they always seemed to take place in the mind of the characters or in some fabulist world between fantasy and everyday reality), the stories of Bret Harte were grounded in the American West, just as the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett were tied to New England. The realists wished to localize characters in a physical world and ground their lives in a social reality.

Although the realist assumption, however, began to predominate in the latter part of the century, Romanticism remained; the result was two branches of the local color movement: the earthy Western folktale and the Eastern sentimental story. Sometimes these two types merged, as they did in the stories of Harte, who managed to combine the sentimental idealism of the East with the humorous realism of the West. Sometimes the conflict between the two types was satirized, as it was in Mark Twain’s famous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” in which a Western tall-tale artist gets the better of a genteel easterner. Other well-known stories of the period, such as William Dean Howells’s “Editha” and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” expose the sterility of genteel idealism when it is cut off from the facts of everyday reality and physical life.

The clearest example of the gradual movement from the local- color story to the well-made story in the late nineteenth century is Kate Chopin, who was more influenced by Guy de Maupassant’s tightly unified stories than by the southern regionalists. Of the over forty stories published in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), some of the best-known are formal stories very close to Maupassant anecdotes. For example, “Madame Celestin’s Divorce” is a simple story in the Maupassant mode about a lawyer, Paxton, who advises a woman to divorce her drinking, wife-beating husband. The lawyer, thinking he will then marry her, falls into the habit of dreaming of taking a wife. She meets him on the street and tells him that her husband is home and has promised to turn over a new leaf. “La Belle Zoraide” is a sentimental story about a servant who has an illegitimate child, but whose mistress, not wanting to lose her services, sends it away and tells her it is dead. The servant pines away, caring for a bundle of rags that represent the baby to her. Even when the mistress relents and brings the actual baby to her, she will have nothing to do with it and lives to be an old woman with her bundle of rags.

Chopin’s best-known story is “Désirée’s Baby,” for in it the formal structure of the story and its Maupassant-like reverse ending is made more complex by the importance of the social issue on which it depends. This was Kate Chopin’s most successful story during her lifetime and has received renewed attention since the advent of feminist criticism. However, many recent critics feel they must apologize for or justify the story’s trick ending, suggesting Chopin’s most important literary forefather, Guy de Maupassant. The importance of paternal names is introduced very early, for Armand does not care that Désirée is nameless (the name her foster mother has given her suggests that she was desired), for this means he can all the more easily impose his own family name—one of the oldest and proudest in Mississippi—on her when they marry. Indeed Désirée says Armand is particularly proud that the child is a boy who will bear his name. Armand’s home shows little of the softness of a woman, suggesting instead the strictness of a male monastic life, with the roof coming down steep and black like a cowl and with big solemn oaks whose branches shadow the house like a pall. The “shadow” metaphor is further emphasized by Désirée’s growing suspicion that there is some air of mystery about the house and by her efforts to “penetrate the threatening mist” about her.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman moves the short story further away from local-color regionalism and closer to modern impressionism and tight thematic structure by combining detailed realism with the thematic patterning pioneered by Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Ivan Turgenev, and Sherwood Anderson. In “A New England Nun,” Louisa, the central character, is a Jamesian figure shut away from the flow of everyday life. The focus of the story is her “artistic” control over the order and neatness of her solitary home, for which she rejects the masculine disorder of her impending marriage. Louisa is not romantic but realistic, attentive to detail; however, she has “almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home.” She worries about the disorder of coarse masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter.

Upon learning of the love between Lily and Joe, she parts with him, like a queen “who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession.” She looks aheadthrough a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness. Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloisterd nun.

This sort of genteel withdrawal from life into an artistic and idealistic pattern receives harsh criticism from Howells, the so- called father of American realists, in his most famous story, “Editha.” Editha extols the Romantic ideal of war so much that her fiancé George joins the army to please her. When he is killed and Editha goes to see his mother, the older woman chastises her severely for her foolish romanticism. As the story ends, however, Editha, while having her portrait done, is confirmed in her own view when she tells the artist about it and the woman says, “How vulgar!” Although the content of the story rejects the idealistic, “artistic” view typical of romanticism for a more everyday human reality, its own form, like most Romantic short stories, is a tightly organized aesthetic pattern.

In addition to the emphasis on local color, another result of the shift from Romanticism to realism in the latter part of the century was a shift from the focus on form to the focus on content. For the Romantics, pattern was more important than plausibility; thus, their stories were apt to be more formal and “literary” than the stories of the realists. By insisting on a faithful adherence to the stuff of the external world, the realists had to allow content—which was often apt to be ragged and random—to dictate form. Because of this shift, the novel, which can expand to create better an illusion of everyday reality, became the favored form of the realists, while the short story, basically a Romantic form that requires more artifice and patterning, assumed a secondary role.

Poe and Hawthorne knew this difference between the two forms well and consequently, by means of a tightly controlled form, created a self-sustained moral and aesthetic universe in their stories. Those writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century who were committed to the short-story form instead of the novel were also well aware of this fact. For example, when Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument then raging between the Romantics and the realists, he attacked the Howells school of realist fiction by arguing, “to them nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man’s most commonplace experience.” Bierce was interested in those extreme rather than ordinary moments of human experience when reality became transmuted into hallucination. His best-known story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” ironically focuses on a real world that seems sterile and lifeless and a fantasy world (in the split second before death) that seems dynamic and real. Tight ironic patterning is what creates the similitude of reality in this story, not a slavish fidelity to the ordinary events of the world.

Bierce’s short stories deal with those moments when people act in such a way that even those closest to them cannot understand what motivates them. Bierce’s most obsessive concern in the short story is not simple macabre horror but rather the central paradox that underlies the most basic human desire and fear—the desire for a sense of unity and significance and the fear that the realization of such a desire means death. Bierce’s characteristic short-story tactic is to distance his characters from the ordinary world of everyday reality by presenting them in a static formal posture or picture, by putting them in a dream-like autistic state, or by putting them on a formal stage. In a Bierce story, when this formal picture or frozen sense of reality is broken, the result is often the shock of entering another realm of reality.

“Chickamauga” is a particularly rich example of this theme of unreality presented as reality. The story opens with the child’s play with toy sword as he postures in ways he has seen in pictures in his father’s military books, overcoming invisible and imaginary foes. When he sees men crawling through the woods, he associates them with pictures he has seen—dog, pig, bear. However, to maintain the tension between the play reality of the child and the war reality of the adult, Bierce asserts an adult perspective on the boy’s experience, noting that all he describes would not have been seen by the child but rather “by an elder observer” or “an observer of better experience.” The story focuses on the two basic worlds: child and adult, fantasy and reality, innocence and experience. When the child reaches home, it is as if he has gone a long way to stay where he was; the plantation “seemed to turn as if on a pivot.” The story ends with the boy’s loss of his mother and the reader’s discovery that he is a deaf mute, his final inarticulate and indescribable cries suggesting grief that goes beyond language.

The relationship between static reality and dynamic reality is again emphasized in “The Man and the Snake,” in which Harker Brayton, while reading in bed, sees two small eyes and the coils of a snake in his room. Brayton is not afraid but rather conscious of the incongruity of the situation, “revolting, but absurd.” He decides the snake is not dangerous but “de trop—‘matter out of place,’” an “impertinence.” Bierce emphasizes that as these thoughts formed in Brayton’s mind, in a process called “consideration and decision,” the “secret of human action” is initiated. When he looks at the eyes of the snake, the spell of the perverse reasserts itself so that even as he tries to...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Many critics argue that realism began in Europe with the publication of the first installment of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). Later, in his best- known short fiction, “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”), Flaubert returned to the medieval saint’s legend or folktale to find a model for both its character and its form. Flaubert’s moral fable, however, differs from its medieval source by representing the static and frozen nature of the medieval story itself. The subject matter of Flaubert’s story, although it has a moral issue at its center, is the method by which the medieval tale is made moral and illustrative. The...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although the French bias was that prose fiction is committed to deal with the actual world rather than the transcendental or the immanent, just the opposite assumption was growing in the nineteenth century in Germany. Many German critics argued that short fiction was the ideal form for the movement called “poetic realism,” a phrase coined by Otto Ludwig to characterize that period between Romanticism and the beginning of naturalism in Germany—the 1830’s through the 1880’s. Poetic realism deals with the realm midway between objective truth and the patterned nature of reality; thus, it united naturalism’s focus on the multiplicity of things and idealism’s focus on abstract unity underlying the multiplicity. Poetic...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although modern short fiction in Russia begins with Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, it reaches its complete maturity with Anton Chekhov. Dostoevski’s most influential short fiction, Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1918), reflects the modern transition to an existential philosophy and an impressionistic technique by being structured in two parts to represent the two basic means by which one tries to know the self: introspection and narrative. It reverses the Socratic injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living to suggest the Hamlet theme—that the intensely examined life is unlivable. The basic theme of Tolstoy’s “Smert Ivana Ilicha” (1886; “The Death of Ivan...

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England and Ireland

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The English, with the exception of modern Irish writers, have never excelled in the short-story form. The reason may have something to do with the English attitude toward a cohesive society. Critic and literary historian Lionel Stevenson has suggested that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or “agglomerate” and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. The fragmentation of sensibility necessary for the development of the short story did not set in in England until about 1880, at which time the form came to the fore as the best medium for presenting it. As another critic, Wendell Harris, has noted, with the fragmentation of sensibility, perspective (or “angle of vision”) becomes most...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The first one hundred years of the short story divides into two almost equal periods: the movement from Romanticism to realism between 1820 and 1880 and the movement from realism to impressionism between 1880 and 1920. It is less a straight line of development from Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820) to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it is a one- hundred-year cycle, for it is a movement from the Romantic subjectifying of the old story form in the early part of the century to the realistic emphasis on objective reality in the latter part, and finally a return to the subjectifying of the objective world at the turn of the century. It is this return to Romanticism that marks the beginning of what is now known as modernism.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Bierce, Ambrose. “The Short Story.” In The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Gordian Press, 1966. Bierce criticizes William Dean Howells and the realistic school for their prosaic and pedestrian realism which fails to perceive the mystery of human life.

Current-García, Eugene. O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Focuses on O. Henry’s frequent themes, his romanticism, and his narrative techniques, such as his use of the tall-tale conventions. Includes critical excerpts from discussions of O. Henry by other critics.

Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions...

(The entire section is 279 words.)