Lecture: The Short Story

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The short story
Narrative genres, such as the novel or the short story, are born out of the very powerful human need to tell stories, out of our fundamental desire to give shape to experience in order to understand it and share it with the community. Through story telling early communities made sense of natural phenomena, unexpected events, and personal experience. Storytelling enabled them to pass on valuable information and to keep the memory of their ancestors alive down the generations. Storytelling satisfies our need to understand and control our origins and destiny; it enables us to meaningfully shape our individual and communal experiences (to extract meaning from experiences that can appear senseless, bewildering or even traumatic). We all tell stories, everyday, to ourselves and to others and we all relish storytelling in one form or another: we love jokes, anecdotes, tales, series, myths, novels, or histories. We cannot conceive of a world devoid of stories; without them we would lose our memory and, in turn, our sense of self.

Storytelling predates the invention of writing and was, in origin, orally transmitted. Our ancestors told stories by the tribal fire, and later by the hearth, which were verbally passed down the generations. Oral transmission meant that stories had to be committed to memory in order to survive and not be forgotten; storytellers also had to be able to effectively convey the valuable life-lessons that their stories contained taking into account the limitations that listening imposes on our capacity to retain information. Storytellers had to be able to captivate and sustain the attention of their listeners. Memory, on the part of the storyteller, and concentration, on the part of the listener, were crucial considerations in early narratives. This means that early narrative forms tended to be quite short and that the modern short story is, in origin, an older and more ancestral form than its longer counterpart, the novel. Early narratives were best memorised and transmitted in a concentrated form: their brevity allowed for valuable life lessons to be assimilated in one sitting, such as the short tales that the older generations told to the young by the fire in order to prepare them for future challenges (what we have come to call “fairy or folk tales”) or the tales that uncovered the mysteries of life and death and the vagaries of natural phenomena in early religious ritual (what we now know as myth). These two short narrative forms, the fairy-tale and the myth, are the distant ancestors of the modern short story. The short story, even in its modern form, partakes to a degree of this desire to illuminate and ritualise experience. It shines a light on the dark recesses of reality to offer a glimpse of life’s mysteries. Like the myth it is static and revelatory.

The modern short story is the result of the heightened focus on individual experience and consciousness that occurs during the Romantic period. In this period, the old ancestral forms of the myth and folk tale are filtered through subjective consciousness in order to illuminate reality by projecting the individual from the inside to the outside. In the Romantic period the old mysteries of the gods and the hidden menace of the little house of the forest are transfigured into the inscrutable recesses of human consciousness. The first practitioners of the short story (or romance as they called it) in English, the Americans Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, take the ancestral intensity of the myth and folk tale to write condensed studies of human behaviour that attempt to reveal the most enigmatic, and in Poe’s case, darkest impulses behind human behaviour.

It is useful to consider the revelatory nature of the short story as crucial to an understanding of this genre. A comparison with the novel can shed some light on this point. Novels are invested in a process or development: they follow the unfolding of a character (or...
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