Polities

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conflict or conflict with others, usually having one thematic focus. Short stories generally produce a single, focused emotional and intellectual response in the reader. Novels, by contrast, usually depict conflicts among many characters developed through a variety of episodes, stimulating a complexity of responses in the reader. The short story form ranges from “short shorts,” which run in length from a sentence to four pages, to novellas that can easily be 100 pages long and exhibit characteristics of both the short story and the novel. Because some works straddle the definitional lines of these three forms of fiction—short story, novella, and novel—the terms should be regarded as approximate rather than absolute.

Sidebars
GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE
The Gift of the Magi
“The Gift of the Magi,” one of the best-known American short stories, was hurriedly composed in a few hours after its deadline had already passed. Celebrated American short-story writer William Sydney Porter, known by his pseudonym, O. Henry, wrote the story for New York Sunday World magazine in 1905. It was published in 1906 in a collection of his short stories, The Four Million. The story contains Porter’s characteristic ironic plot twists and surprise ending, and is set in New York City, Porter’s home from 1901 until his death in 1910. The city was a common backdrop for his stories. Today Porter is memorialized in the O. Henry Awards for short stories. These stories have been published annually in anthologies since 1918. open sidebar

Distinctions should be made between short tales and the modern short story as it is usually regarded. Short tales go back to the origins of human speech, and some were written down by the Egyptians as long ago as 2000 bc. They usually dramatize a simple subject and theme and emphasize narrative over characterization; the opposite is true of the modern short story, where characterization, mood, style, and language are often more important than the narrative itself. Distinctions should also be made between commercial and literary fiction within the short story genre. From O. Henry to Stephen King, commercial short fiction has traditionally featured predictable plot formulas, stock characters and conflicts, and superficial treatment of themes. Literary short fiction employs complex techniques to depict the often-unresolvable dilemmas of the human predicament.

II. ELEMENTS OF THE SHORT STORY

Sidebars
GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE
Why I Live at the P.O.
The novels and short stories of American writer Eudora Welty have come to epitomize modern Southern storytelling. A lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty brings her characters to life through vivid language and speech patterns, and her deftly portrayed situations often center around family circumstances and relationships. “Why I Live at the P.O.” was published in Welty’s 1941 short-story collection A Curtain of Green. open sidebar

The basic elements of the short story include setting (time and place), conflict, character, and theme. Most stories are set in present day, but settings of place vary from rural to urban and exotic to mundane. The reader follows the main character (or protagonist) in a conflict with another character (or antagonist) or in an internal conflict with some antagonistic psychological or spiritual force. Characters range from familiar stereotypes, such as the aggressive businessman and the lonely housewife, to archetypal characters, such as the rebel, the scapegoat, the alter ego, and those engaged in some sort of search.

The subject of a short story is often mistaken for its theme. Common subjects for modern short fiction include race, ethnic status, gender, class, and social issues such as poverty, drugs, violence, and divorce. These subjects allow the writer to comment upon the larger theme that is the heart of the fictional work. Some of the major themes of 20th-century short stories, as well as longer...
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