Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Florence Goyet, "The Classic Short Story: 1870-1925"

Professor Florence Goyet of Stendhal University, Grenoble, was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, The Classic Short Story, 1870-1925, now available in hardback, paperback, and kindle on Amazon. Originally published in France in 1993, this new edition is a revised and updated, translated version published in the United Kingdom and the United States by Open Book Publishers in 2014.

By "classic" short story, Goyet refers to a period of short story development somewhere in between the romantics of the mid-nineteenth century—Poe, Hawthorne, Gogol, Nerval, Gautier, Merimee, Turgenev—and the moderns of the early twentieth century—Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, Hemingway,  Crane, Conrad, Kafka.  Goyet is quite right in pointing out that this "in-between" period has been relatively ignored by critics either because the stories were "naturalistic, an approach not always conducive to the short story, or "well-made," an approach that often led to simplistic plot-based tricks.

From the publication of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" in 1853 until Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, the development of the short story in America can be traced by examining stories in the following loose categories, which I pose for the sake of convenience only.  The discernible development of the form focuses on those stories that have been classified as "local color," which then compels a movement toward realism. The most representative examples are George Washington Harris, Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree, Thomas Nelson Page, James Lane Allen, Kate Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary Wilkins Freeman.  However, Cable's local color cannot be appreciated fully without an understanding of his use of gothic conventions, any more than Kate Chopin's local color can be understood without an appreciation of her use of Maupassant's convention of the well-made story.  And Mary Wilkins Freeman's local color must be seen in the context of Jamesian realism. 

The second issue that must be considered is how local color compelled, abetted, or served the growing development of realism, and how realism flowed quite naturally into modern impressionism.  The realists that might be discussed are William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Frank Norris.  The realists becoming impressionists are, of course Henry James and Stephen Crane.  And included with this influential pair that presaged the kind of poetic realism that characterized Anderson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and others of the 1920s, should be Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, and Willa Cather.  The final group includes those writers who developed the structural pattern of the short story to such an extent that it became the well-made story.  These include Edward Everett Hale, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Frank Stockton, Fitz-James O'Brien, and O. Henry.  All of these strands had important influences on the American short story in the last half of the nineteenth century and continued to influence the development of the form into the twentieth century.

Goyet has chosen to focus primarily on five writers  in the latter  part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth: Maupassant, Chekhov, Giovanni Verga, Henry James, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke.  She says she has read all the stories by these writers, and has placed them in the context of their contemporaries, e.g. Daudet, Kipling, etc.  She has chosen a corpus of one thousand stories, reading them in their original language in the newspapers and journals where they first appeared.  In addition to  reading all this primary material, she has documented her research in secondary material scrupulously.  Indeed, on some pages, the footnotes take up as much space as the text.  The three major sections of the book approach the classic short story from three perspectives;  its structure, its original publication site, and its relationship between reader, author, and character. Goyet's book is an ambitious project, and it is certainly a strongly grounded work of academic research and critical analysis.

I don't intend to offer a detailed review of the book.  If you have an academic or historical interest in the short story, you will want to read it.  Instead, I want to talk a bit about those aspects of the classic short story Goyet emphasizes that interest me most.

Goyet's argument about paroxystic characterization in the short story, that is, that characters are always symbolic, representative and dependent on a structural tension or antithesis, rings true to me. For example, in discussing a story by Verga about a manhunt, she says the story is about the manhunt par excellence.  She says, like the fairy tale, the classic short story works with unequivocal entities: "paragons of virtue or vice." But she adds, this paroxysm does not characterize only the main characters, it permeates the entire narrative.   In other words, the paroxystic characterization of the classic short story makes its characters into exemplary representatives of a category,  making them into almost abstract entities.  Reader interest then shifts from individuals to the development of the story.  Thus, the central feature of the classic short story is its structure, which, she argues, is  almost always based on antithesis.  Narrative structure takes precedence over the characters, who primarily are at the service of their role in the plot, or, I would say, pattern.

Goyet, not surprisingly, chooses Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as emblematic  of the deep antithetical tension in the classic short story.  The power of the classic short story, she says, comes from making the tension between two opposing forces the governing energy of the story as a whole.  This oxymoronic tension, Goyet argues, is a necessary aspect of the classic short story, but not of the novel.

One of the results of the classic short story's emphasis on antithetical structure is the form's focus on its ending, what Goyet calls "the twist in the tail."  Rather than emphasizing the most obvious surprise ending stories, such as O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," which she does discuss as an example of antithetical structure, she talks about Chekhov's story "Misery," the emotional impact of which is not dependent solely on the ending when the old cab drive talks to his horse, but rather on the antithetical structure that permeates the story throughout and culminates structurally in that ending. Goyet says that great stories with a twist in the tail ending are more complex than O. Henry's simple trick endings because they force us into what she calls a "retroreading," i.e., a reconsideration of the entire story from its beginning.

Comparing the short story to the sonnet form, Goyet argues that the classic short story is a genre that is so dependent on antithetic tensions and rests so heavily on the paralleling of elements that the signs in the story do not take on meaning immediately but rather are half-hidden and put on reserve in the memory until the ending gives them a definitive place in the structure. "At the end of the text, one's mind runs through the elements stored during the reading and gives them back their hidden meaning, the meaning provided by the general structure and economy of the work."

Goyet concludes her discussion of the structure of the classic short story by arguing that what gives masterpieces of the genre their greatness is their effective use of what ancient rhetoricians calls "hypotyposis,"  that is, a particularly vivid depiction that makes us "see," rather than conceive.  She says that it is the balance between the abstract and the concrete, the powerful descriptions and schematic material, that distinguishes the classic short story from the allegory or the medieval exemplum.

I enjoyed reading Florence Goyet's book, and I thank her for sending it to me.  Her scrupulous analysis of a body of short fiction that is often ignored reaffirms for me some of the characteristics of the form for which I have argued for many years, especially the short story's emphasis on thematic structure and its presentation of character both "as if real" and "representative" at once. I recommend it to you for its breadth and insight.

1 comment:

Florence Goyet said...

It was a real pleasure to read Charles May's post on my book. The book is free to read on the publisher' site at http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/199 and now free to download at Unglue.it (http://unglue.it/work/136328/), where you can also take part in their crowdfunding initiative.