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.
The Chekhovian shift to the "modern" short story is marked by a transition from the romantic focus on a projective fiction, in which characters are functions in an essentially code-bound parabolic or ironic structure, to an apparently realistic episode in which plot is subordinate to "as-if-real" character. However, Chekhov's fictional figures are not realistic in the way that characters in the novel usually are. The short story is too short to allow for character to be created by the multiplicity of detail and social interaction typical of the novel.
Once we see that the short story, by its very shortness, cannot deal with the denseness of detail and the duration of time typical of the novel, but rather focuses on a revelatory break-up of the rhythm of everyday reality, we can see how the form, striving to accommodate "realism" at the end of the 19th century, focused on an experience under the influence of a particular mood and therefore depended more on tone than on plot as a principle of unity--all of which lead to the significant impressionistic influence.
In "”Grief" (sometimes translated as "Misery" or "Lament"), the everyday rhythm of 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--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 parabolic 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. T. S. Eliot will later term such a technique "objective correlative," and James Joyce will master it fully in The Dubliners.
The basic technique perfected by Chekhov and that has since been identified with modernism is impressionism--an approach that is more apt to appear in short story than in the novel, for it takes the approach that reality is not just out there, but is someone's perspective on it. It was with Chekhov that the short story was liberated from its adherence to the parabolic exemplum, and fiction generally was liberated from the tedium of the realistic novel. With Chekhov, the short story took on a new respectability and began to be seen as the most appropriate narrative form to reflect the modern temperament. There can be no understanding of the short story as a genre without an understanding of Chekhov's contribution to the form. Conrad Aiken's assessment of him in 1921 has yet to be challenged: "possibly the greatest writer of the short story who has ever lived."
Tomorrow: O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem"