The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice


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Email us: wrap warwick. Skip to content Skip to navigation. The Library. Login Admin. The modernist short story : theory and practice in five authors. These books are often designed as training grounds for a formulaic study of the novel, and represent a deeply entrenched attitude to the study of literature. The pedagogic and cultural implications of this kind of'puzzle-solving', with its underlying will to order, reduce and assimilate, are disturbing, especially when it is foregrounded as the key to a literary genre. This body of short fiction, therefore, has provided much material for the character-revelation school of reading, an approach underpinned by Joyce's 'epiphany' concept, the ' sudden spiritual manifestation '57 which is usually seen as the key to characterization: The emphasis of modernist short fiction was on a single moment of intense or significant experience.

It was not generally thought desirable to break down experience into smaller units still, for example units of language: such a breakdown could theoretically proceed The short story: theories and definitions 19 infinitely, leading to a complete degradation of meaning and value. So the ' epiphany' or ' blazing moment' came to form the structural core of modernist short fiction and This stress on the fleeting moment is consistent with the prevailingly relativist philosophy inherited by modernist writers.

The problem is further exacerbated, as Hanson perceives, by 'the "indirect free" style of narration in which the voice of the narrator is modulated so that it appears to merge with that of a character of the fiction'.


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Hanson, however, overlooks the possibility that this might be the whole point, and pursues a more conventional way of solving the problem of uncertainty. Her account of Katherine Mansfield's art indicates the kind of'solution' she finds. Overemphasizing Mansfield's Symbolist inheritance, Hanson actually buttresses the reductive character-revelation approach: ' the strength of Katherine Mansfield's Symbolist technique can be fully appreciated only through close readings.

Hanson enables herself to conclude that the husband in 'The Escape' 'comes to full consciousness of his position, of the exhaustion of his spirit and the impasse reached with his wife', and her purpose in doing so is to present this neatly unpacked epiphany as exemplary: 'such a moment of vision is the quintessence of modernist short fiction'. The 20 The modernist short story husband's vision is complicated by a simultaneous perception of 'the beauty of the external world and of art', but the reading is far from complex in that it hinges upon a preconceived approach to symbolic pattern and order.

If narrative authority and the stability of personality are both problematized, what grounds are there for this emphasis on authorial order and control? One might equally interpret the use of symbol as objective correlative for internal mood as fluid and uncertain; as emblematic of that 'ever-changing' personality.

Indeed, not to do so implies more about the reductive habits of critical theory in general and short story criticism in particular than it does about modernist writing.

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Pertinent here is Wayne Booth's argument that even in the most impersonal novel there is an implied author whose personal values are expressed in the total form. Yet the cultivated disunity of the modernist story should lead us away from the search for a unifying authorial presence, and towards a focus on the historical gaps and conflicts in a text.

These gaps and conflicts, which I take to be the central aspect of evolving generic form, inevitably result in an uneven textual surface. Hanson's delimited reading of Mansfield is anticipated by Valerie Shaw, who rightly points out that' Mansfield moves so freely in and out of the minds of all of her characters that they end up existing on the same level, leaving no way of gauging the author's attitude to her subject'. The problem, as Shaw perceives it, is solved by an integrated use of 'figurative' language — a strategic use of symbol and metaphor — which enables Mansfield 'to balance sympathy and judgement'.

The aesthetic preference for 'balance', and for the 'judgement' it affords, lies behind Shaw's conservative view of the epiphany as an ordering principle:' most worthwhile short stories do contain a definite moment at which understanding is attained, sometimes involving a response no deeper than, " So it was the butler who killed Lord Mountjoy", but often turning the reader The short story: theories and definitions 21 inward to reassess his [or her] own moral or ethical standpoint5.

Woolfs 'Moments of Being', referred to above, can be seen as structured around a wow-epiphany which makes just such a challenge. In fact, most of the accepted modernist' epiphanies' are problematic. The 'significant moment' in Dubliners constitutes the most surprising example of this, being consistently undercut by unreliable narrative. The problem facing short story critics is to find a way of escaping their own reductive formulae.

Short summary of english novels

Indeed, the critical literature often exhibits the kind of contradiction that can point beyond the formulae. Julio Cortazar, for instance, has contributed to the visual artefact aesthetic, but his comments also reveal its limitations. Cortazar's metaphor for story composition is 'modelling a sphere out of clay', and, despite the obvious comparison with Wain's blancmange theory, the idea is developed into a more significant area: ' to put it another way, the feeling of the sphere should somehow be there before the story is ever written, as if the narrator, subject to the form it takes, were implicitly moving it and drawing it to its maximum tension, which is what makes for, precisely, the perfection of the spherical form'.

There is an inherent contradiction here between plasticity and physical perfection, not perhaps in the process of fashioning clay, but certainly in relation to the short story as a finished product. Cortazar develops the misleading aspect of this analogy in discussing the ' autarchy' of the ' great story', denoted by 'the fact that the story has pulled free of its author like a soap bubble from a bubble-blower'.

The modernist short story: a study in theory and practice | University of St Andrews

The contradiction, however, is illuminating. Janos Szavai detects 'an internal contradiction' in the short story which derives from its origins in the oral anecdote. Apropos of Hemingway, he considers the significance of stories which are structurally closed, yet thematically open. He considers ' the short story element' to be ' an unexpressed paradox'. Stated less paradoxically, Bayley's belief here is that' one of the most vital effects of the short story' is ' the impression that there is always something more to come'.

It must seem both formally to preclude, and secretly to accept, speculation on matters excluded by itself The incompatibility between its art and its mystery must become its own justification. The major stumbling-block is the contradiction perceived between form and content, a perception which results from a preconceived notion of form. A more helpful approach would construe the new form as content itself, innovation as The short story: theories and definitions 23 statement, and as a contradiction only of the old notion of form.

It is a question of 'grasping form no longer as the symbolic mould into which content is poured, but as the "form of the content": which is to say, grasping form as the structure of a ceaseless self-production, and so not as "structure" but as "structuration"'. Such a language has generally been missing from short story criticism, and, since the elements of ambiguity and paradox cannot be precisely dealt with without such a language, critics have taken refuge in the nebulous concept of'mystery'. Bayley believes that the short story must suggest' that its mystery cannot be yielded up ',70 and this idea of ' mystery' has been mentioned by several critics, usually as a fundamental generic factor.

Eudora Welty has written that the first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stones, we return at the last to see mystery again.

Postmodernity

Every good story has mystery - not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful. The chapter ends with a quote from William James concerning his brother Henry's tales and the 'feeling' they arouse 'of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of their being'.

Clare Hanson summarizes this view in writing that' the ellipses in the works of the modernists generally occur The dot-to-dot exercise re-establishes order at the expense of devaluing, and hence misrepresenting, the element of disorder. An example of symbolic effect will help to clarify this problem of misrepresentation. The story traces the happiness of its protagonist, Bertha Young, during a day which culminates in a dinner party at which she is the hostess. Her feeling of elation, which she cannot define, becomes focused into an imagined bond with a dinner guest, Pearl Fulton, a beautiful young woman who is 'a "find" of Bertha's'.

Her bubble of euphoria is burst when she sees Harry and Pearl in each other's arms as the guests are leaving. Bertha's 'epiphany' involves a dawning but incomplete awareness of her own latent homosexuality, a development conveyed by the symbolic associations of the pear tree in the story. Initially, the tree is assessed by Bertha as a symbol of her own life, and then, as she and Pearl stand admiring it together, she imagines it unites them. Finally, having discovered Harry and Pearl embracing, she turns to the tree apparently expecting to find it somehow changed in accordance with her new mood, only to find it 'as lovely as ever'.

Accordingly, Anderson interprets the pear tree as a symbol of Bertha's sexuality, its tallness representing her unrecognized homosexual aspirations and its rich blossoms expressing her desire to be sexually used. The story's symbolism has provoked much debate, a fact which suggests that it may be less determinate than the symbolhunting critical approach has allowed. Indeed, an explicit association is made between Bertha and the tree when 'she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life'.

This is made manifest when Bertha, having witnessed the embrace, rushes to look at the pear tree, her happiness destroyed: Bertha simply ran over to the long windows. But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still. These different functions of the tree are reinforced by the pun on 'pear', which can also be heard as 'pair', suggestive of Bertha's personal identification with the tree, and also of her later notion that it somehow unites her with Pearl. In creating this distance between character and symbol Mansfield skilfully widens her symbolic scope: the pear tree is now both emblematic of Bertha's sexuality and representative of the blossoming, fecundating processes of nature from which she is excluded.

This exclusion highlights her predicament as frustrated homosexual and as unwilling participant in a heterosexual system. The symbol is at once Bertha and yet not-Bertha, a formal contradiction which summarizes Bertha's personality contradiction and non-identity.

This disruption of symbolic order is consonant with the modernists' fragmented presentation of personality. Such a complex use of symbolism is commonly detected in poetry, but is rarely observed in discussions of short fiction. This example demonstrates how disorder and contradiction can be productive.

In concentrating on symbolic pattern, 26 The modernist short story however, the reading, as it stands, is geared to exposing the limitations of the symbol-hunt: to some extent it discredits, by following, the same restricted methodology. This is not to say that symbolism is irrelevant in reading the story, but that its role is complicated and enriched by other factors, particularly the use of discourse and fictional frame.

The premise of this chapter has been that the literary effects generated in modernist stories derive from a tension between formal convention and formal disruption, and that this paradoxical dual essence has been recognized, but not adequately theorized in existing short story theory. A more coherent approach, and one which removes the apparent paradox, can be achieved through an application of the Althusserian concept of 'relative autonomy'.

Basically, this involves seeing the disruptive literary gesture as an instance of relative autonomy; as something which is simultaneously conditioned by, yet critical of its ideological context, a context which can be equated with literary conventions and whatever world-view they encompass. This element of criticism need not always be an overt aspect of the text, and may be the product of a contemporary reinterpretation; for the modernists, however, the disclosure of ideological context is often an integral part of their formal experimentation.

The value of this approach can be illustrated by a brief consideration of a well-known text as an example, for instance, Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure: if we consider the economic exigencies of magazine publication to have had an important influence on the novel's structure - its episodic and incident-full nature — we are still left with a great deal more to say about its effects, what it can be made to show.

Hardy, though obliged to cram the book with happenings, does not allow his readers to become involved simply with the plot; rather, he spoils and disrupts a straightforward identification The short story: theories and definitions 27 with the novel's causal progression.

A key example of this follows the death of the children, when Jude and Sue, in the midst of their grief, pause to discuss the Agamemnon, from which Jude finds himself quoting. As John Goode perceptively remarks, ' not only does Jude produce an apt quotation which shows his knowledge more than it illuminates the situation, but Sue suddenly looks out of her understandable hysteria and both awards him an accolade and tells the reader how to assess his quotation'.

We are called upon to question the value of Jude's knowledge and, by extension, the worth of the type of education he values. This is typical of a novel, which 'again and again Althusser has been charged with political capitulation for his theoretical stance in this area; and this charge hinges on the amorphous category of the aesthetic, and on the way in which the concept of relative autonomy has been linked with the aesthetic quality of art.

If the element of autonomous vision is equated with the aesthetic as some form of universal category , then one can easily see how Althusser could be 'charged with reinscribing the categories of bourgeois aesthetics within Marxism'. A crucial document here is 'A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre', in which Althusser outlines the concept of relative autonomy in a r t : ' I do not rank real art among the ideologies, although art does have a quite particular and specific relationship with ideology.

The Modernist Novel A Critical Introduction

Like all knowledge, the knowledge of art presupposes a preliminary rupture with the language of ideological spontaneity and the constitution of a body of scientific concepts to replace it'. The first thing is that ' the knowledge of art' is distinguished from the 'language of ideological spontaneity ', the art language itself. This mid-ground of knowledge implies a critical position, a political interpretation externally applied.

The second connected point is that aesthetics and ideology are presented as linked in some way. The 'aesthetic effect', in essence, is relatively autonomous, but is simultaneously delimited by the ideological factors bearing upon it. The ' knowledge of art' is accorded a privileged status, but this is dependent upon an external political understanding of ideology. One should be wary of putting too much weight on so slight a document as the 'Letter on Art', but it is highly valuable as a preliminary signpost to the politicizing of the aesthetic as a variable, contextually dependent category.

The dual essence of art - its simultaneous contextual dependence and contextual critique - is only viable if the context in question can be made available at least partially through the text. History, that is to say, has to exist as an extra-textual reality which locates and defines literary production. This may amount to no more than an imperfect reconstruction by the critic, based on a personal period-knowledge, but it is this element of referentiality which redeems the knowledge of art from the 'subject-less discourse of conceptual science' and gives it a context.

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The Modernist Short Story course description JMcD MT 1112

This is the reading which 'divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first'. Jameson, again, suggests an answer: In the case of Althusserian literary criticism proper The authentic function of the cultural text is then staged rather as an interference between levels, as a subversion of one level by another; and for Althusser and Pierre Macherey the privileged form of this disunity or dissonance is the objectification of the ideological by the work of aesthetic production.

One must not look for unifying effects but for signs of the contradictions historically determined which produced them and which appear as unevenly resolved conflicts in the text. As we have seen, Bertha's ' epiphany' in the story involves a dawning awareness of her own latent homosexuality, but this semirevelation is greatly compromised by the personal confusion and alienation which are simultaneously uncovered.

The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice
The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice
The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice
The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice
The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice

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