Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Richard G. Stern’s diction bears the hallmark of one who began his writing career as a poet before turning to novels and short stories. It is economical, varied, and highly compressed. As one reviewer has commented, “You read a sentence twice not because it is obscure but because you want to make sure you are extracting every nuance.” This richness is noticeable in the frequency of short, elliptic sentences, as Wissler’s thoughts pile quickly up on one another: “And whoops, heart gripped, I’m heading down, hand cushioning, but a jar,” which conveys the sudden shock of slipping on the ice.

Also noticeable in this respect is Stern’s frequent use of compounds, which occur in his descriptions of the people who pass through Wissler’s mental landscape. Ms. Bainbridge, for example, has a “silver-glassed, turn-of-the-century-Rebecca-West” face; Fraulein Hochhusen is “berry-cheeked”; Herr Doppelgut is “paper-white” and “dog-eyed”; Miss Rabb is “potato-faced”; and the earnest face of Ms. Glypher is “parent-treasured, parent-driven.”

The juxtaposition of the formal with the informal, which underlies the story and gives it much of its effect, can be seen stylistically in the first paragraph. As Wissler reviews the names of his current students, no first names come into his mind. He knows them as Miss Fennig, Mr. Quincey, Mr. Parcannis, Miss Shimbel, Ms. Bainbridge, and Miss Vibsayana. The latter “speaks so beautifully.” However, in the parentheses that follow (a stylistic device employed frequently by Stern), such formal and correct language gives way to an undercurrent of intense feeling aroused by the thought of Miss Vibsayana and expressed in colloquial, ungrammatical language: “You cannot relinquish a sentence, the act of speech such honey in your throat, I can neither bear nor stop it.” The double comma splice and the ellipsis (the omission of the verb in the second clause) convey the sudden rush of feeling and the hurried thoughts that accompany it. This dichotomy between spoken and unspoken thoughts sets the tone for the remainder of the story.