To celebrate Father's Day on Sunday, I am posting brief comments on four short stories that focus on fathers. These are very short short stories that can be read in a few minutes, and I am including a link in case you want to read them in the next couple of days. Just copy the url into your browser. The only version of the Lagkervist story I could find is a reading because, I guess, the text is still protected by copyright.
I included these four stories in a textbook of stories I edited back in 1993 entitled Fiction's Many Worlds. I sometimes used the book in my Short Story classes when I was teaching and always enjoyed discussing these stories with my students. What follows are some of the comments I used to stimulate discussion in those classes.
Happy Father's Day!
Par Lagkervist, Father and I
Lagkervist's story provided an opportunity to discuss how a fictional series of events that begin realistically can move into the realm of the dreamlike and the hallucinatory, and, by their very unreality, become parables. The first section of the story taken by the father and his son, which charts the journey forward, is brightly lit and delineated; everything seems sure and full of life. However, the return journey is dark and mysterious; everything suggests loneliness and death. What makes the story illustrative and parable-like is the archetypal situation of father and son journeying to the place of the father's old home. On the journey there, the son sees the father as completely at home in the world, one who is all-knowing and self-assured. However, on the return journey, it is as though an emotional, as well as a physical, turning point has been reached.
The boy feels the father is no longer there to protect him because he is not afraid of the same things the boy fears. No longer does the boy think of "Daddy and I" or "we"; instead, the father is a separate individual with his own private thoughts to which the boy is denied access. Moreover, for the first time, the boy recognizes a basic difference between the father and himself. Whereas the father seems comfortable and at home, treating things of the world as merely things, the boy transforms things into meaning. For him, the world is filled with mysterious forces; even God, which the father takes for granted, the boy senses to be an invisible force that inhabits all things.
The division of the story into two diametrically opposed parts--day journey and night journey--suggests a symbolic significance, as does the way that familiar objects in the day become transformed into mysterious objects at night. However, the mirror reflections of the two parts of the story would not be complete without the second train. On the way out, the train that passes is familiar and known to the father. The black train that roars past them at night, on the other hand, has a driver who is pale faced, immovable, and unknown. The boy says the train had been for his sake and he guessed what it meant. "It was all the fear which would come to me, all the unknown; all that Daddy didn't know about, and couldn't save me from." And with this transformation of the train into a symbolic object, the transformation of the story from realism to parable is complete.
Anton Chekhov, "Grief" ("Misery")
The most influential figure in the development of modern short fiction is Anton Chekhov. Chekhov's short stories were first welcomed in England and America just after the turn of the century as examples of late 19th-century realism, but since they did not embody the social commitment or political convictions of the realistic novel they were termed "realistic" primarily because they seemed to focus on fragments of everyday reality. Consequently, they were characterized as "sketches," "slices of life," "cross-sections of Russian life," and were often said to be lacking those elements which constitutes a really good short story.
However, at the same time, other critics saw that Chekhov's ability to dispense with a striking incident, his impressionism, and his freedom from the literary conventions of the highly plotted and formalized story marked the beginnings of a new or "modern" kind of short fiction that combined the specific detail of realism with the poetic lyricism of romanticism.
In Chekhov's story "”Grief" (sometimes translated as "Misery"), the everyday rhythm of the old cab-driver Iona's reality is suggested by his two different fares, a rhythm Iona tries to break into with the news that his son is dead. The story would indeed be only a sketch if Iona did not tell his story to the little mare at the end. For what the story presents is the comic and pathetic sense of the incommunicable nature of grief itself. Iona "thirsts for speech," wants to talk of the death of his son "properly, with deliberation." He is caught by the basic desire to tell a story of the break-up of his everyday reality that will express the irony he senses and that, by being deliberate and detailed, will both express his grief and control it.
In this sense "Grief" is a lament (as the title is sometimes translated)--not an emotional wailing, but rather a controlled objectification of grief and its incommunicable nature by the presentation of deliberate details. It therefore indicates in a basic way one of the primary contributions Chekhov makes to the short story; that is, the use of the form as the expression of a complex inner state by means of the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by presenting either a parable form or by depicting the mind of the character. Significant reality for Chekhov is inner rather than outer reality; but the problem is how to create the illusion of inner reality by focusing on externals only. The answer for the modern short story is to find a story that, if expressed "properly," that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details, will embody the complexity of the inner state.
Katherine Mansfield, "The Fly"
Like Chekhov, whom she greatly admired, Katherine Mansfield was often accused of writing sketches instead of stories because her works did not manifest the plotted action of 19th-century short fiction. The best-known Mansfield story similar in technique and theme to the typical Chekhov story is "The Fly." Like Chekhov's "Grief," the story is about the nature of grief; also like Chekhov's story, "The Fly" maintains a strictly objective point of view, allowing the details of the story to communicate the latent significance of the boss's emotional state.
However, Mansfield differs from her mentor Chekhov by placing more dependence on the fly itself as a symbol (depending on your interpretation) of the death of the boss's grief, his own manipulated son, or the trivia of life that distracts us from feeling. Moreover, instead of focusing on the inarticulate nature of grief that goes deeper than words, "The Fly" seems to emphasize the transitory nature of grief.
Regardless of how much the boss would like to hold on to his grief for his son, he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain such feelings. Such an inevitable loss of grief does not necessarily suggest that the boss's feelings for his son are negligible; rather it suggests a subtle aspect of grief--that it must flow naturally or not at all. The subtle way that Mansfield communicates the complexity of the boss's emotional situation by the seemingly irrelevant conversation with his old acquaintance and by his apparently idle toying with the fly is typical of the Chekhovian device of allowing objective detail to communicate complex states of feeling.
A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over those drops of ink that the boss drops on the fly at the end of the story because of the ambiguity over what the seemingly meaningless action objectifies.
Grace Paley, "A Conversation with My Father"
Grace Paley once said that this story is about storytelling, generational attitudes, and history. She says the father in the story is right, from his point of view, for he came from a world where there was no choice, where you couldn't change careers when you were forty-one years old. Paley has said that the father in the story is patterned after her own father.
What Paley rebels against in this story is the inevitability of plot, which, because it moves toward a predestined end, is a straight line between two points and thus takes away all hope. A basic difference between fiction and "real life," Paley suggests is that whereas real life is open and full of possibility, fiction moves relentlessly toward its predetermined end. Consequently, as much as the writer might like his or her fiction to be "like life," it can never quite be a similitude of life. The closest the writer comes to feeling this sense of similitude is when fictional characters are so fully realized that they seem to take on a life of their own and somehow "get away" from their authors.
After the author tells her second story, the character of the mother does seem to "come alive" both for the author and the father, for whereas the father feels sorry for her as if she were a real person in the real world, the author feels that she has the freedom to do something other than she does in the story. A basic difference between the father's reaction to the woman in the story and the author's reaction is that whereas the father takes her situation seriously, as if she had a separate existence in the world, the author knows that the woman is her own creation; thus, although she feels sorry for her, she never loses sight of the fact that as the author she has the god-like power to alter her destiny.
The basic implication of this difference is that whereas the reader can become involved with fictional characters within the predetermined pattern of the plots in which they live, the author necessarily takes a more distanced approach to his or her characters and thus is more apt to see them satirically rather than tragically.
Happy Father's Day!