The gothic writers and the English romantic poets of the early part of the nineteenth century shifted away from a concept of language as referential and the art work as imitative to a view of language as constitutive and the art work as creative. The Romantics demythologized the old tales and ballads, divesting them of their external values, and then remythologized them by internalizing those values and self-consciously projecting them outwards. They wished to preserve the old religious values of the romance and ballad form without the religious dogma and mythological trappings that formerly attended them; knowing that the origin of the old story mode lay in basic psychic processes, they secularized the myth by radically foregrounding the subjective and projective nature of story, thus returning to the psychological origins of myth as the primal source of story.
The ballad, which had previously existed seemingly in vacuo as received story without the influence of the teller, became infused with the subjectivity of the speaker and projected onto the world as a new mythus. Value existed in the world outside, but only because it existed first within the imagination of the artist. The romantic artists' fascination with medievalism and folk material springs from their realization of the basic religious or spiritual source of both the old romance and the folk ballad. Their fascination with the old ballads were part of their efforts to recapture the primal religious experience, albeit in a new way.The positioning of a real speaker in a concrete situation encountering a particular phenomenon that his own subjectivity transforms from the profane into a psychological similitude of the sacred, but about which he is always undecided, is an important impetus to the development of the early nineteenth-century short story.
Whereas Coleridge's task in The Lyrical Ballads was to focus on the supernatural, "yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith," Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to choose subjects from ordinary life and "excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us."
Clear examples of this dual project are Coleridge's lyrical story, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's story lyric, "Resolution and Independence." In the Lyrical Ballads the "story" element, the hard outlines of the event, are subsumed by the lyrical element, which is foregrounded. However, in America, for Hawthorne and Poe, the story element is foregrounded; the lyrical element remains primarily as the personal voice of the teller. As George Lukacs says, in the short story, when the writer lifts a fragment out of the totality of life, "this selection, this delimitation, puts the stamp of its origin in the subject's will and knowledge upon the work itself: it is, more or less, lyrical in nature."
Consequently, while America is usually given the credit for the origin of the short story, it is clear that the basic impulse for the form began in Germany with the romantic novella and in England with the eighteenth-century essayists and the nineteenth-century poets. Two well-known and frequently-cited short narratives from the early nineteenth century in England make use of the same devices and conventions that underlie the more accepted beginnings of the form in America, Germany, France, and Russia. These include Charles Lamb's "Dream Children," because of its focus on the tension between reality and imagination and Sir Walter Scott's "Wandering Willie's Tale," because of the relationship between its narrator and the traditional ballad story.
T. O Beachcroft suggests that "Dream Children" (1822), Charles Lamb's most famous essay, with its narrative movement and its management of time between present and past, is a central example of the emergence of the short story from the essay. Indeed, the piece is a precursor to a central nineteenth-century short story convention, for it depends on a surprise ending in which what the reader took to be an event is revealed to be reverie.
On a first reading of "Dream Children," one has no reason to doubt the actuality of the event described--that of the narrator's children sitting around him to hear about their great grandmother and their uncle--until at the very end when the narrator awakes and finds himself alone. The imagined events, because they correspond to the projected reactions of the reverie-children to the made-up memory, convince us of their reality until we discover that the teller is an old bachelor and that the children are only those who might have been.
As in the 18th-century essay form generally, no one really exists in "Dream Children" except the teller; characters and events merely serve his rhetorical purpose. The structure consists of long passages of reverie parading as discursive recollection, beginning with the phrase, "Then I told them how...", alternating with short descriptions of the children's reactions, beginning with such phrases as, "Here Alice put on one of her dear mother's looks," "Here John smiled, as much as to say...," "Here the children fell a crying...." The climax comes when the teller sees the dead mother in the face of one of the children and begins to doubt "which of them stood there before me."
Rip Van Winkle has the same ambiguous response when he awakes and sees his own son as himself. The children grow fainter and recede until only their "mournful features" are seen in the distance, which, "without speech," seem to communicate as if by speech: `We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all.... We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams.'" Thomas Aldrich's famous nineteenth-century story, "Marjorie Daw," in which a supposedly real character is revealed at the end to be a product of the imagination, is perhaps the most famous example of this common short story motif. Anatole France's "Putois," in which a purely imaginary gardener is created, is another. Variations of the motif occur throughout the century whenever there is some ambiguity within the narrative as to the psychological or phenomenological status of characters or events.
Another common creation point for the short story is when an oral tradition meets a literary tradition. The best-known example of the literary transformation of the oral folk-tale in early nineteenth century British literature is Sir Walter Scott's insert tale in Redgauntlet, often anthologized as "Wandering Willie's Tale." Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, the story has been called Scott's "only fully successful brief narrative," almost a "textbook example of the well-told tale," and Scott's greatest achievement in the ghost story. Foregrounding the teller and thus making tone as important as story, "Wandering Willie's Tale" manifests the typical self-conscious ambiguity of the nineteenth-century short story as to whether the events recounted are supernatural or psychologically realistic. The story has much the same combination of oral ironic voice, folk legend, and local color as Washington Irving's most famous tales and manifests much the same uncertainty about dream reality vs. external reality, albeit with less moral ambiguity, as some of the tales of Hawthorne.
"Wandering Willie's Tale" forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale, in which supernatural confrontations were the stock-in-trade and the later British mystery story in which the seemingly supernatural encounter is justified in a grotesque but realistic way. Although the Scottish dialect of Willie's telling and the somewhat trivial crux of the missing money and rent receipt on which the story depends undermine the seriousness of the supernatural, eliciting more chuckles than gasps, what makes the story differ from the old-fashioned ghost story is its thematizing the supernaturalizing of the natural which lies at the very heart of the folk tale impulse itself. As is evident from his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Scott was familiar enough with this impulse to parody and play with the conventions that underlie it.
Both the supernatural and the natural are presented side by side in the tale to create a pattern of motifs that mocks the Lord of the manor, Sir Robert, even as it also lightly mocks supernatural explanations for the mysterious disappearance of the rent money and Steenie's consequent visit to hell to obtain the receipt he needs to prove he paid the rent. The manifest motivation of the tale is to clear Steenie's good name, even as the satiric thrust is to cast disrepute on the name of Redgauntlet and thus register a triumph of the lower class over the higher.
Sir Robert is presented as a powerful figure made mythical by the folk as one who has a compact with Satan, a fearsome image, which is undercut when Steenie goes to pay the master his rent, for Sir Robert dies in a grotesquely comic struggle with the gout, screaming for water to put on his legs, all the while being mocked by his pet Jack-an-ape. The Jack-an-ape plays a crucial role in the tension between the supernatural and the real, not only by providing the naturalistic explanation for many of the seemingly supernatural events, but in being presented as a grotesque "familiar" for Sir Robert, both of whom bear the image of the fiend in the folk imagination--"a fearsome couple."
At the end of the story Willie notes that many think the shape of the fiend that the butler saw on Sir Robert's coffin was the monkey, as it was the monkey who blew the master's silver whistle that summoned the butler to his death from fright. It is of course the ape also who is responsible for hiding the money in the old turret called "Cat's Cradle." Thus the monkey serves as a realistic explanation for supposed supernatural events as well as a metaphoric image of the demonic Sir Robert himself.
Although Stennie's trip to hell to get the receipt is seemingly motivated by his drinking and his calling upon Satan to help clear his name, it is also an objectification of his exasperated reply to Sir Robert's son's question about the whereabouts of the money: it is "in hell! with your father and his silver whistle." The stranger who meets Steenie in his ride through the dark forest is a typical figure of nineteenth-century short fiction, used by Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Hawthorne in "Young Goodman Brown." As do many other short fiction figures of the century, Steenie responds to his journey to a hell-like image of the Redgauntlet castle filled with ghastly revellers as if he were "like a man in a dream." After receiving the receipt from Sir Robert and being ordered to return in one year, like Goodman Brown, Steenie calls on God's name and immediately finds himself lying in the old churchyard of the Redgauntlet parish, thinking "the whole thing was a dream, but he had the receipt in his hand."
The central ambiguity of the tale--whether the events take place in the realm of superstition and folklore or in the real world--depends on whether the Lord of the manor's good name or Steenie's reputation is to be preserved. Because of the ambiguous tone of the teller, "Wandering Willie's Tale" marks a transition from the supernatural tale of the folk to the modern short story in which the seemingly supernatural events have either realistic or psychological explanations. In the next phase of the British and Irish short story, with the quasi-scientific mystery stories of Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Sheridan Le Fanu, this ambiguity becomes the central concern of the narrative.