National Short Story Month: May 1, 2015
When did the short story begin? Perhaps the fairest and yet most manageable starting point is that era when stories, written in prose, first moved out of the realm of popular oral folk tale and qualified as a form of human art. Most critics and historians agree that such a point was reached in the middle of the fourteenth century with the publication of Boccaccio's milestone collection The Decameron.
An important cornerstone for The Decameron's claim as the primogenitor of literary short fiction is Francesco De Sanctis's argument that Boccaccio's stories reflect a basic cultural shift. De Sanctis reminds us that the essential quality of the Middle Ages was transcendence, "an ultrahuman and ultranatural `beyond' of Nature and Man," in which spirit was outside the body and the purpose of life was outside the world. As Mircea Eliade has suggested, because this transcendent world had constituted true reality since archaic societies, it was, through the Middle Ages, considered the only suitable subject for serious writing.
Boccaccio rebelled against this view by focusing on the everyday world, a subject matter formerly considered fit only for the vulgar popular folktale, anecdote, and jest. Boccaccio's solutions to the problems that resulted from his attempt to write artistic stories about everyday life constitute The Decameron's narrative innovations. The first such problem was that Boccaccio could not use techniques of the popular profane story, for such stories were essentially anecdotes, bits of gossip, vulgar jokes, and ribald tales with no formal tradition of narrative techniques and rhetorical devices. Moreover, given the cultural assumption of the time that the subject matter of everyday profane life had no hidden significance or transcendent meaning, Boccaccio could not use narrative techniques of the old sacred story such as allegory, parable, or exemplum.
Not surprisingly, the short story as a literary form begins with the tension between the particularity of everyday reality and the universality of sacred reality. On the one hand, there was the cultural assumption that written story served a sacred purpose, was indeed an accessible account of transcendent value. On the other hand, there was the assumption that oral anecdotes, jokes, and tales had no purpose, for the foibles and failings of everyday reality had no meaning. Parallel to this narrative duality was the assumption that the sacred story, like ritual, was highly formal, governed by tradition and rules; whereas everyday reality, commonplace and familiar, was ragged, unpredictable, and ungoverned; there were simply no formal conventions to control it because there was no teleology to direct it. As Frank Kermode points out in his influential study of endings, teleology affects meaning because without it the writer can only focus on the here and now; consequently, events cannot have symbolic significance without a transhistorical plan.
By turning from the sacred to the profane world for the subject of his stories, Boccaccio had to forsake the religious basis of meaningful patterns of events and create a new sense of the meaningful out of the events of everyday reality. Whereas sacred reality was taken to be universal and ultimately ordered, everyday reality was simply one particular thing after another with no order or meaning at all. As a result, mere accounts of such activities would be little more than routine description, for narrative assumes that some purposeful unity binds the events together. Thus, the first problem Boccaccio faced was how to transform meaningless everyday reality into a meaningful teleological event with a formal unifying pattern; that is, he had to find a basis for depicting everyday reality that would elevate it from mere description to artistic inevitability and significance.
As Hayden White argues, the wish to narrativize is based on the "demand that sequences of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements in a moral drama." Our desire to have real events display the "coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure" of fiction is based on our desire that events have meaning, significance, moral justness, says White. What transforms a series of real events into a story is just this sense that the events have significance. When events occur in the real world that seem poetically just or ironically patterned, we are apt to feel we are in a world in which fate, or fortune, a new basis of inevitability, is at work.
Another important change Boccaccio made to short prose narrative was dropping the moral appendix that justified the form in the early Middle Ages. As a result, Boccaccio had to develop a new way to communicate the moral significance of the story. With the loss of the tag came the demand for readers to apply to the story the kind of interpretive tactics that had formerly been used to understand sacred forms. However, the assumption of the sacred story that everything had a transcendent purpose was replaced by the realization that whereas reality was not governed by a ultranormal meaning, the events of story had to be related to some central significance embodied in the story itself. Although Boccaccio's stories are rooted in everyday profane reality, as is typical of narrative they embody the human desire that life has order, meaning, and justice; however, since order and justice had to be within the unity of the story rather than in a realm of transcendent reality, order had to be aesthetic and justice had to be poetic.
Events in Boccaccio's novella are usually not symbolic in the same way they are in an allegory, for in allegory, objects are counters for abstract ideas, whereas in the Renaissance novella they are significant because of the patterned role they play. As Flannery O'Connor has noted, details in short stories "tend to accumulate meaning from the story itself, and when this happens, they become symbolic in their action." Consequently, says O'Connor, the problem for the short story writer is "how to make the concrete work double time for him."
For an anecdote to become a story in The Decameron, Boccaccio structures the plot in the highly patterned way that Aristotle had identified for tragedy, in which events rebound on themselves in a geometric fashion. Although human emotions, such as love, jealousy, revenge, greed, etc. may initiate events in Boccaccio's stories, the way the events reach closure is governed by the patterned replication of poetic justice
Perhaps the best illustration in The Decameron of Boccaccio's replacing divinely ordered accident with highly patterned narrative structure is the famous story of the ninth tale of the fifth day--the story of Federigo and his falcon. After the young Federigo has spent all his money, to no avail, to impress Monna Giovanni, he moves to a small farm in the country, near which she, after the death of her husband, retires with her son. The boy admires Federigo's prized falcon, falls ill, and says he will get well only if his mother gets the bird for him. However, when she goes to make this request of poverty-stricken Federigo, he has the falcon killed and served to her for dinner. The boy dies, but Monna Giovanni is so impressed with Federigo's nobility that she marries him; thus he ends up with his love gained and his fortune regained.
With its ironic reversal turning on the well-meaning giving of a gift, the story is plotted much like that classic combination of irony and sentimentality that for many has come to represent the quintessential short story, O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." Facing Christmas with no money to buy presents for each other, James and Della Dellingham give up their most prized possessions. She sells her beautiful long hair to buy him a chain for his gold heirloom watch, while he sells his watch to buy jewelled combs for her hair--actions which by their very nature negate each other in a precisely ordered way.
De Sanctis says that the supreme art of Boccaccio is to group circumstances in the form of pictures and to coordinate them around a center. Such a way of telling a story, continues De Sanctis, is not to follow the natural flow of action, nor is it a manner suited to history. The resulting "paintings" are not the successive order of action, nor the connections between actions, but rather the formal physiognomy of the action--what E. H. Gombrich in his discussion of physiognomic likeness, means by "global impression." Gombrich says, "If the problem of likeness is that of the equivalence of the dominant expression, this expression or air must remain the pivot around which all the transformations turn."
Such a pictorial technique, which marks a distinction between mere event or anecdote and developed literary story, was emphasized in the mid-19th century by the writer most often credited with developing the literary short story, Edgar Allan Poe, and the writer most responsible for making prose narration deserving of the term "art" in the late nineteenth century, Henry James. Poe describes precisely what Wayne Booth says Boccaccio achieves--the development of a preestablished design and the combination of events with "such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction" (Poe 61). It is just this notion of the tale's "central idea" that made 19th-century German theorist Paul Heyse attribute to the novella as a genre a central core or "strongly marked silhouette," which he called "the falcon."
Henry James also knew that the short story should not be presented as the natural flow of narrative, but, as De Sanctis pointed out about the technique of Boccaccio, in terms of a picture around which everything centered. "A short story, to my sense and as the term is used in magazines," said James, "has to choose between being either an anecdote or a picture and can but play its part strictly according to its kind. I rejoice in the anecdote, but I revel in the picture. This notion of the short story as a picture held together by thematic pattern is a key characteristic of short story technique further developed by Goethe and Poe.
Because Boccaccio's use of seemingly real characters and events held together by a tight patterning of static pictures based on a thematic center created a tension between pattern and plausibility, the short narrative form has always hovered between reality and fantasy. Alberto Moravia says that Boccaccio makes action in his stories, which often seems unwarranted and unreal, real by means by "magic realism," by which he means "a visionary yet concrete precision of detail, combined--within a rarefied and ineffable atmosphere--with an extraordinary sense of the coincidences offered by reality itself at the moment of narration." In the 20th century, the same sort of effect is created by the so-called magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and such writers as Ernest Hemingway, whose stories have been called "noonday nightmares" and Raymond Carver, whose stories have been termed "hyperrealism."
Since the characters in Boccaccio's stories are not allegorical figures, but similitudes of real people in the real world, it is generically inevitable that eventually characters will exceed their mere functions as vehicles for ideas in these highly formal poetic justice plots. As Kermode point out, as characters take on a consciousness of their own and events become more complicated, the exemplary nature of both character and plot becomes undermined. Although indeed Boccaccio's focus does shift away from transcendent ideas to character motivation, it is not "why" characters act the way they do that interests him; it is rather that their actions result in the only kind of moral meaning possible--our wish, as Hayden White suggests, that human events have the teleology and meaning of narrative itself.