Monday, October 1, 2012

Artifice and Endings in the Short Story: Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?"

Since the beginning of the short story as an historically-recognized genre, writers and critics have agreed that the form depends more on a tightly-unified structure and a formalized ending than the novel does. However, critics have often argued that consequently the short story is not realistic, not natural, and therefore not worthy of critical consideration. The assumption underlying this judgment is that since life itself is continuous, the novel is the only narrative form capable of imitating that continuity; the short story, on the other hand, because it is spasmodic and intermittent, is artificial.  Since the short story cannot follow the chronological development of character, but must select a point at which the author can approach life, it has no essential form and thus generates a unity that is abnormally artificial and intense. 

Why, I wonder, when discussing an aesthetic object, should we take "artificiality" to be pejorative, especially the artificiality of unity and endings?  Henry James, in his preface to Roderick Hudson, reminds us that stopping places in fiction are always artificial.  As James puts it, since universally relations stop nowhere, "the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so."  Similarly, J. Hillis Miller has noted that it is always impossible to tell whether a narrative is complete.  If the ending is considered a tying up into a knot, the knot could always be united again; if the ending is considered an unraveling, a multitude of loose threads remain, all capable of being knotted again.  This is why, Miller says, the best one can have is the "sense of an ending."

The coiner of that nicely-turned phrase, Frank Kermode, also reminds us, "We always underestimate the power of rhetorical and narrative gestures."  Endings, says Kermode, "are always faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence."  In other words, any time we arrange a narrative sequence to achieve a meaningful end, that is, any time we make use of the processes of repetition and similarity to convert a temporal flow into metaphoric sets, we inevitably "fake" the ending.  For this faking of an ending is the very act that makes meaning out of the "one-damned-thing-after-another" that meaningless events always are; such faking thus constitutes the essence of narrative art.

Still, many critics have argued that the faking of endings was primarily a negative characteristic of nineteenth-century short fiction; they are fond of citing such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Frank Stockton, and O. Henry as the chief culprits.  Not until the work of Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson and Joyce, many critics like to claim, did the short story develop a "natural" structure that was "open-ended," reflecting a realistic "slice-of-life."

However, I would argue, in spite of all the praise for the realism of the modern short story, from the "slice-of-life" anecdotes of Anton Chekhov to the intense "hyperrealism" of Raymond Carver, the twentieth-century version of the genre has remained highly formalized, artificial, and metaphoric, like its nineteenth-century antecedents. What has changed is that a new convention of the form developed to increase the illusion of everyday reality.  From Chekhov to Sherwood Anderson to Bernard Malamud to Raymond Carver, the short story has been bound to a highly artificial, rhetorically-determined unified structure, and therefore formalized ending, which depends upon the artificial devices of aesthetic reality.

 The Russian formalist critic Boris Ejxenbaum was alone among early twentieth-century critics to recognize that what O. Henry, one of the most notorious practitioners of the artificial ending, exploited in his stories was a convention unique and essential to the short story genre.  Ejxenbaum argues that the difference between the novel and the short story is a difference in essence.  Whereas the novel ends with a point of let-up, the short story "gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded."  O. Henry understood this important aspect of the short story, Ejxenbaum argues; his pervasive tendency was to "lay bare the construction of a story and subject the plot to parodic play.”  By this means, continues Ejxenbaum, the O. Henry story opened the way to the regeneration of the short story ala Chekhov, Anderson, and others at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I suggest, however, that the laying bare of the conventionality of the ending of short stories began long before O. Henry. To illustrate my point I will comment briefly on one nineteenth-century story famous for its "artificial" ending--Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Purely a story of technique; the "content" of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a pretext for a game Bierce plays with the conventions of narrative endings.  The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end" possible--death.  However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an act of the imagination and an elaborate bit of fiction-making that the reader initially takes to be actuality. 

The story is made up of three sections that correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action.  But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves.  The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, almost a still picture, highly formalized and stiff.  At the end of Part I, the teller tips the reader off to the play with time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make:  "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant.  The sergeant stepped aside."  The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction --the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told one after another.  It is this purely rhetorical acceptance of the nature of discourse that justifies or motivates the final fantastic section of the story.

The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I, purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event, of a bit of exposition that tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament.  The reader sits patiently through this background formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III of the story--which itself is of course a depiction of that which does not happen at all except in the flash (which can only be recounted in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind.  It is thus only because of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality. 

At the conclusion, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense of the story abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense:  "Peyton Farquhar was dead."  At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would have been no story.  Postponing the end of the story until the ultimate and inescapable end of death is the subject of Bierce's self-conscious and self-reflexive discourse.        

Thus rather than being a cheap trick dependent on a shocking ending, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a complex narrative reflecting both in its theme and its technique the essential truth that in discourse there is no ending but an imaginative, that is, an artificial, one.  As Boris Ejxenbaum has shown, the stories of O. Henry, rather than being trivial tricks, likewise lay bare the conventions of the short story's dependence on the artificiality of the ending, for all endings in narrative discourse are inevitably artificial.  It is simply that in the short story this artistic truth is laid bare rather than concealed behind the conventions of realism as it often is in the novel.  However, at the end of the nineteenth century many critics, bound to the naive notion that narrative must replicate the real, scorned the stories of O. Henry and rejoiced when the stories of Chekhov seemed to signal the resurgence of realism.

The question that should be asked is:  How "realistic" is Chekhov's realism?  One of the primary characteristics of the modern short story ala Chekhov is the expression of a complex inner state by the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by the creation of a projective parabolic form or by the depiction of the contents of the mind of the character. Significant reality for short-story writers beginning with Chekhov is inner rather than outer, but the problem they have tried to solve is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only.  The result is not simple realism, but rather a story that even as it seems a purely surface account of everyday reality takes on the artificial aura of a dream.

In Raymond Carver’s "Why Don't You Dance?" from What We Talk About When We talk About Love, the first question the reader asks is: why does the man put all of his furniture out on the front yard?   Because things are described as "his side, her side," although no "her" is present, the reader can infer that the story is about the breakup of a marriage.  However, the answer to the second question the reader asks--why does the man arrange all the furniture outside just as they were inside and plug in all the appliances?--is more problematical since the motivation for his making everything appear outside the house as they once were inside the house can only be explained metaphorically.  "Things worked," says the narrator, "no different from how it was when they were inside." 

But they are different, of course, precisely because what was previously hidden is now manifested for everyone to see.  And of course this is what the modern short story since Chekhov always does. The problem, as it is in this story, is that the manifestation, although it looks like external reality, suggests internal reality.  The story does not supply the realistic answer to why the man plugs everything in, only the metaphoric answer to why everything is indeed plugged in.  In other words, that everything is plugged in is not motivated by the psychology of the character but rather by the aesthetic demands of the discourse.

That everything is plugged in on the lawn is of course a static metaphor.  What the frozen situation needs to make it a dynamic story is the entrance of the young couple who provide what is always necessary for meaning to be manifested in fiction--repetition and recurrence. If the man who has put out the furniture is in a movement of transition from one situation to another, then the couple is also involved in such a transition.  They are the beginning of the story that has ended for the man, for they make use of the materials of his story to create their own.  In the epilogue, which constitutes the "end" of the story, the girl is telling someone about it weeks later.  "She kept talking.  She told everyone.  There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying."  Thus, the story ends with the frustration of trying to reveal by merely telling.  The key line--"There was more to it"--refers to a basic convention of all modern short stories---that indeed there is more to it than the mere external details. 

            A narrative, by its very nature, cannot be told until the events that it takes as its subject matter have already occurred. Consequently, the "end" of the events, both in terms of their actual termination and in terms of the purpose to which the narrator binds them, is the beginning of the discourse.  It is therefore hardly necessary to say that the only narrative which the reader ever gets is that which is already discourse, already ended as an event so that there is nothing left for it but to move toward its end in its aesthetic, eventless way, i.e., via tone, metaphor, and all the other purely artificial conventions of fictional discourse.  Thus, it is inevitable that events in the narrative will be motivated or determined by demands of the discourse that have nothing to do with the psychological or phenomenological motivation or cause of the actual events.

The short story's most basic assumption is that everyday experience reveals the self as a mask of habits, expectations, duties, and conventions. But the short story insists that the self must be challenged by crisis and confrontation.  This is the basic tension in the form; in primitive story the conflict can be seen as the confrontation between the profane, which is the everyday, and the sacred, which are those strange eruptions that primitive man took to be the genuinely real.  The short story, however, can never reconcile this tension either existentially or morally, for the tension between the necessity of the everyday world and the sacred world is one of those basic tensions that can only be held in suspension.  The only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.

If the novel presents life as it is actually experienced, as some critics like to claim, it is only life as a set of categories, that is, in terms of the profane everyday world of necessity.  In this sense, the novel is the most conceptual, least artistic narrative form.  And indeed in the history of the development of narrative forms this seems to be the case. Not until the late nineteenth century when James and Conrad made the novel less conceptual and more aesthetic, and thus less realistic and more symbolic, were critics ready to accept the novel as an artistic form. 

When critics scorn the short story for the artificiality of its highly unified structure, when they take it to task for the falsity of its placing so much emphasis on its ending, they obviously forget in their demand that all narrative follow the conventions of realism that the essence of art is artifice.  Consequently, they forget that the short story is the most artificial and thus the most artistic of all narrative forms.

No comments: