It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story, just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society. Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work." The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition. According to J. H. Delargy, in a frequently cited study of the Gaelic story-teller, ancient Ireland fostered an oral literature unrivalled in all of western Europe, a tradition that has influenced the growth of the modern Irish short story.
Delargy describes Irish story-telling as being centered on a gathering of people around the turf fire of a hospitable house on fall and winter nights. At these meetings, usually called a céilidhe (pronounced "kaylee"), a Gaelic story-teller, known as a seanchaí (pronounced "shanachie") if he specialized in short supernatural tales told in realistic detail, or a sgéalaí (pronounced "shagaylee") if he told longer fairy-tale stories focusing on a legendary hero, mesmerized the folk audience.
It is the shorter, realistic seanchas or eachtra (pronounced "achthrah") rather than the longer, epical fairy tales that have given rise to the Irish literary short story. This type of story, which usually featured supernatural events recounted with realistic detail suggesting an eyewitness account, has been described by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German writers as the source of the novelle form, which usually featured a story striking enough to arouse interest in and of itself, without any connection to society, the times, or culture. This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction.
One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction. The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility. The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience. It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the story-teller.
Prominent Irish critic Declan Kiberd has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a "vibrant oral culture" was challenged by the "onset of a sophisticated literature tradition"; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a "fusion" between the folk-tale and modern literature. William Carleton is the most important Irish mediator between the folk tale and the modern realistic story because of his attention to detail and his creation of the personality of the teller. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story. The purpose of the first-person narrator in romantic short fiction, as Carleton, and later Poe and Hawthorne knew, is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated, but also to transform the event from an objective description to an individual perspective.
Critics of Irish fiction generally agree that Carleton's story "Wildgoose Lodge," with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is his best, similar to the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne in America. "Wildgoose Lodge" recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a Catholic secret society. Although ostensibly merely an eye-witness report by a former member of the society, the structure of the story reflects a self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story. A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, "Wildgoose Lodge" is a classic example of how romantic short-story writers developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without using allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot.
What makes "Wildgoose lodge" a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and self-consciously aware at once. Moreover, the story's selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment--the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish--shift the emphasis in this story from a mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure. It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.
Many critics of the short story have suggested that the modern Irish short story begins in l903 with the publication of George Moore's The Untilled Field, thus agreeing with Moore's own typically immodest assessment that the collection was a "frontier book, between the new and the old style" of fiction. Moore felt that The Untilled Field was his best work, boasting that he wrote the stories to be models for young Irish writers in the future. And indeed, as critics have suggested, the book had a significant effect on the collection of short stories that has become one of the most influential short story collection in the twentieth century--James Joyce's Dubliners.
In combining the coarse subject matter of the French naturalists with the polished style of the fin de siecle aesthetes, the stories in The Untilled Field seem unique for their time. However, they still maintain an allegiance to the folk tale form and to the importance of story as a means of understanding reality. Moore's adherence to the folk tale form and the need to understand reality by means of story can be clearly seen in one of his best-known and most anthologized stories from The Untilled Field--"Julia Cahill's Curse." The story-with-the-story, told by a cart driver to the first-person narrator, recounts an event that took place twenty years previous when a priest named Father Madden had Julia put out of the parish for what he considered unseemly behavior; in retaliation, Julia put a curse on the parish, prophesying that every year a roof would fall in and a family would go to America. The basic conflict in the tale is between Julia, who in her dancing and courting, represents free pagan values, and the priest, who, in his desire to restrain her, represents church restrictions.
The conflict between Julia and the priest is clear enough; however it is the relationship between the teller and the listener that constitutes the structural interest of the story, for what the tale focuses on is an actual event of social reality that has been mythicized by the teller and thus by the village folk both to explain and to justify the breakdown of Irish parish life in the late nineteenth century. Whereas the folk may believe such a tale literally, the modern listener believes it in a symbolic way. Indeed, what Moore does here is to present a story that is responded to within the story itself as both a literal story of magic and as a symbolic story to account for the breakdown of parish life.
"So on He Fares" is a more complex treatment of how story is used to understand a social situation. Moore himself had a high regard for this story, even going so far as to say in his boastful way that it was the best short story ever written. The basic situation is that of the loneliness of the child Ulick Burke who chaffs against the harsh control of his mother and dreams of his absent father and of running away from home. The story is very much like a fairy tale, complete with the evil parent, the absent soldier father, and the child's need to strike out and make his fortune. When Ulick becomes a man and returns home, he is met by a small boy, the same age as he when he left, whose name is also Ulrick Burke.
"So on He Fares" is an interesting experiment with the nature of story as a projection of desire, in this case the basic desire of the child to escape his controlled situation. In one sense, it can be read literally; that is, that when Ulick returns he indeed finds a younger brother who has the love that he himself never had from his mother. In another sense, it can be read as a symbolic projection of the child who throws himself into the river to escape his loneliness and then is reborn into a child the mother loves. Ultimately, it can be read as a projection of a child's desire to escape and still remain home at the same time; it is thus a story about story, about a childhood fantasy presented as if it really happened.
Frank O. Connor singles out Moore's "Home Sickness" as representative of the direction that the Irish short story would take in the twentieth century, arguing that it has the "absolute purity of the short story as opposed to the tale." The story seems simple enough. James Bryden, an Irish immigrant who works in a bar in the Bowery, goes back to Ireland "in search of health," and for a short time considers marrying a peasant girl and remaining there. What unifies the story beyond its simple narrative structure is the understated but sustained tone of Bryden's detachment from the reality of Irish life and his preference to live within a sort of nostalgic reverie, which he is disappointed to find remains unrealized.
Although Bryden longs for the Bowery as he contrasts the "weakness and incompetence" of the people around him with the "modern restlessness and cold energy" of the people in New York, and although he blames the ignorance and primitive nature of the folk who cling to religious authority as his reason for returning to America, the conclusion of the story suggests a more subtle and universal theme by counterpointing a detached dream-like mood of reverie against Irish village reality. The story is about the unbridgeable gap between restless reality and dream-like memory.
The most influential modern Irish short-story writer is, of course, James Joyce, although that influence is based on one slim volume, Dubliners (1914). Joyce's most famous contribution to the theory and technique of modern short narrative is his notion of the "epiphany," which he defined in his early novel Steven Hero: "By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."
In a Joyce story, an epiphany is a formulation through metaphor or symbol of some revelatory aspect of human experience, some highly significant aspect of personal reality, usually communicated by a pattern of what otherwise would be seen as trivial details and events. Joyce's technique is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern. Two of Joyce's best-known stories, "Eveline" and "Araby," end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.
In "Eveline," the reader must determine how Eveline's thoughts of leaving in Part I inevitably to her decision to stay in Part II. Most of the story takes place while Eveline is sitting at the window watching the evening "invade" the avenue. Nothing really "happens" in the present in the first part of the story, for her mind is on the past and the future, occupied with contrasting images of familiar/strange, duty/pleasure, earth/sea, entrapment/escape, death/life. It is the counterpoint pattern of these images that prepares the reader for the last section of the story when Eveline stands among the crowds and decides not to leave her father and Ireland.
The problem is how to understand how the first part of the story, which focuses primarily on the bleakness of Eveline's past life at home and thus seems to suggest that she will decide to go with Frank, manages at the same time to suggest that she will decide to stay? The basic tension is between the known and the unknown. Although Eveline does not have many happy memories of her childhood and family life, at least they are familiar and comfortable. Because these events have already happened, what "used to be" is still present and a part of her. However, life with Frank, because it has not yet happened, is tinged with fear of the unknown, in spite of the fact that it holds the promise of romance and respect. Thus, at the end, when she sets her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal, with no sign of love or farewell or recognition, we realize that her decision to stay is ultimately inexpressible.
What Joyce achieves in one of his most anthologized stories, "Araby," derives from Chekhov's experiments with creating symbols out of objects by their role or context, not by their preexisting symbolic meaning. The primary counterpoint throughout the story consists of those images that suggest ordinary reality and those that suggest unknown romance. The result is a kind of realism that is symbolic at the same time for the boy's spiritual romanticism is embodied in the realistic objects of his world. This is a story about the ultimate romantic projection, for the boy sees the girl as a religious object, a romantic embodiment of desire. Her name is like a "summons" to all his "foolish blood," yet it is such a sacred name that he cannot utter it. Her image accompanies him "even in places the most hostile to romance." Thus, when he visits Araby, a place he fancies the most sympathetic to romance, what he seeks is a sacred object capable of objectifying all his unutterable desires.
The conversation he overhears causes his realization precisely because of its trivial flirtatious nature, for what the boy discovers is that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be made profane. To see his holy desire for Mangan's sister diminished to mere physical desire is to see a parody of himself. The result is the realization not only that he is driven and derided by vanity, but that all is vanity; there is no way for the sacred desires human beings store up in their ghostly hearts to be actualized and still retain their spiritual magic.
"The Dead" is the most subtle example of Joyce's innovative technique. The first two-thirds of the story reads as if it were a section from a novel, as numerous characters are introduced and the details of the party are reproduced in great detail. It is only in the last third, when Gabriel's life is transformed, first by his romantic and sexual fantasy about his wife and then by his confrontation with her secret life, that the reader reflects back on the first two-thirds of the story and perceives that the earlier concrete details and the trivial remarks are symbolically significant. Thematically, the conflict that reflects the realistic/lyrical split in the story is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in actual experience and life perceived as desire.
The party portion of "The Dead" reflects Gabriel's public life; his chief interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. During their short carriage ride to the hotel, he indulges in his own self-delusion about his relationship with his wife: "moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory."
When Gabriel discovers that Gretta has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has been willing to sacrifice his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's smug safety. In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is. "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. At the end, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, he loses his egoistic self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness. "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.