Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Rudyard Kipling, The "Gardener"

Much of the negative criticism that Rudyard Kipling's fiction has received is precisely the same kind of criticism that has often been lodged against the short story form in general--for example, that it focuses only on episodes, that it is too concerned with technique, that it is too dependent on tricks, and that it often lacks a moral force.
Henry James noted that the young Kipling realized very early the uniqueness of the short story, seeing what chances the form offered for "touching life in a thousand different places, taking it up in innumerable pieces, each a specimen and an illustration.  In a word, he appreciates the episode" (l8). However, it is just this appreciation for the episode, according to Edmund Wilson, that prevented Kipling from becoming a great novelist: "You can make an effective short story, as Kipling so often does, about somebody's scoring off somebody else; but this is not enough for a great novelist, who must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another."
Moreover, it is not simply because Kipling could not "graduate," as it were, to the novel that critics have found fault with him.  Frank O'Connor confesses his embarrassment in discussing Kipling's stories in comparison with storytellers like Chekhov and Maupassant, for he feels that Kipling has too much consciousness of the individual reader as an audience who must be affected. C. S. Lewis also recoiled from Kipling for similar reasons.  Complaining about what he calls the excess of Kipling's art, he cites how constantly shortened and honed his stories by blotting out passages with Indian ink.  Ultimately, says Lewis, the story is often shortened too much and as a result "the style tends to be too continuously and obtrusively brilliant" with no "leisureliness." 
This criticism is similar to Edmund Wilson's, for it suggests displeasure with Kipling's stories because they do not follow the same assumptions as the novel.  Lionel Trilling notes that the words "craft" and "craftily" are Kipling's favorites, and Wilson says that it is the paradox of his career that he "should have extended the conquests of his craftsmanship in proportion to the shrinking of the range of his dramatic imagination.  As his responses to human beings became duller, his sensitivity to his medium increased."
Such remarks indicate a failure to make generic distinctions between the nature of the novel and the nature of the short story; they either ignore or fail to take seriously Stevenson's realization that the tale form does not focus on character, but rather on fable, on the meaning of an episode in an ideal form.  Bonamy Dobree has noted this fabular aspect of Kipling's stories, suggesting that as Kipling's mastery of the short story form increased, he became more and more inclined to introduce an element of fable.  "Great realist as he was, it is impossible to see what he was really saying unless the fabular element is at least glimpsed." However, the fabular element, so common to the short story form, often is criticized as being limiting in Kipling, as indeed over the years it has been a central cause of criticism of short fiction generally.  For example, W. W. Robson has suggested that Kipling's desire to have complete possible control of his form and medium, while it can lead to impressive achievements in fantasy and fable, "can also lead to a simplification and distortion of human character" (260).
Such a judgment assumes that human character in fiction is constituted solely of conduct, that character is created and revealed by the actions of man in time and space, in the real world.  And indeed, such an assumption is typical of the expectations we have about character in the novel form.  However, such need not be an assumption of character in the short story.  As Isak Dinesen has suggested in "The First Cardinal's Tale," the tale or short story form is one that focuses on an idealization-- not man and woman seen as they are in the everyday world, but rather transformed by the role they play in the story itself.  In the short story, it is the fable  that is the focus; the characters exist for the sake of the story rather than the story existing for the sake of the characters.
I do not claim that Kipling's stories are not highly crafted, that they do not involve unrealistic character, that they do not depend on tricks.  For in many ways, they must stand guilty of such charges. What I do wish to suggest is that such charges are not necessarily damaging, for they indicate that Kipling was perhaps the first English writer to embrace the characteristics of the short story form whole-heartedly, and that thus his stories are perfect representations of the transition point between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modern short story--a transition, however, which Joseph Conrad, because of the profundity of his vision, perhaps was better able to make than Kipling
.Kipling's most famous story, "The Gardener," depends on  concealment of an inner life for its effect, and a split between external reality and a tenuous inner reality.  Both Edmund Wilson and Frank O'Connor call "The Gardner" Kipling's best story, even a masterpiece, but, as so often the case with Kipling criticism, they do so with reservations.  Edmund Wilson believes that the story is not of the highest quality because of the fairy tale properties of the ending.  O'Connor also has serious reservations about the conclusion of the story when Helen goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her illegitimate son and meets a man she supposes to be the gardener, thus echoing the mistake of Mary Magdalene when she goes to the tomb and meets Jesus.
The impact of the conclusion of the tale depends, of course, on the fact that Kipling has concealed the truth about the boy being Helen's son throughout the story.  O'Connor accepts the argument that such a concealment might be justified by the fact that Helen herself has concealed this knowledge from the village, but still he does not believe that this rescues the story. O'Connor says that had he written the story he would have revealed the illegitimacy at the beginning.  The result would be to remove the story from the world of celestial gardeners and place it in the real world, thus indicating throughout that the story is one of Helen's heroism in bringing the child home in the first place (l0l-l03).
Eliot Gilbert has tackled these objections to the story directly and has suggested that Kipling is not guilty of trickery here, but instead has concealed the facts of Helen's case as an essential echo of the theme of concealment which prepares the reader to experience the same shock that Helen does at the end.  He argues that the supernatural ending "represents the final intensification of the author's vision, too compressed and cryptic to find expression within the realistic framework of the rest of the tale."  However, as excellent as Gilbert's discussion is in rescuing the story, it still would not dismiss O'Connor's misgivings, nor does it clearly explain why Kipling's vision requires the so-called supernatural conclusion.
The basic technique of the story depends on a gap between details that are "public property," that is, details which the village is aware of and which in turn the reader knows, and unwritten details which are private property, known only to Helen herself.  What is public is a lie and what is private is the truth; furthermore, what is ugly in the public eye is revealed as beautiful in the eye of the reader at the conclusion.   The basic question is: what makes the truth beautiful at the end?  Even at the end, Helen does not accept the young man as her son, still referring to him as her nephew, thus continuing the protective lie she has perpetuated throughout the story.  The irony, however, lies in the fact that Helen's heroism depends precisely on this concealment, for it is obviously done not for her own sake, but for her child's.
Earlier in the story, when the boy wants to call Helen "Mummy," and she allows him to do so as their secret only at bedtime, she reveals the secret to her friends, telling the boy that it's always best to tell the truth.  His reply--"when the troof's ugly I don't think it's nice"--constitutes a revealing irony in the story about the nature of truth and its relationship to beauty.  What the boy calls "ugly" is the truth Helen tells that the boy calls her "Mummy" even though she is not his mother.  The truth that she is his mother is however the beautiful truth that cannot be revealed within the profane realm of everyday society, for that truth would indeed be ugly from that profane point of view.
The death of the boy and his mysterious spontaneous burial under the shelled foundation of a barn marks the psychic death of Helen also, for in her double life, she truly has lived, like Mary Postgate, only for her son.  The resurrection of his body marks a parallel resurrection for her as she makes her trip to visit the grave. Mrs. Scarsworth is, as other critics have well noted, an embodiment of Helen's split self and thus echoes her previous position.  Mrs. Scarsworth tells Helen that she is tired of lying.  "When I don't tell lies I've got to act 'em and I've got to think 'em always. You don't know what that means." Helen of course knows precisely what that means, but even though she is the one most able to directly sympathize with Mrs. Scarsworth, still she cannot tell the truth, for that truth is ugly within the profane world.
However, what is ugly to the profane world is finally revealed as beautiful within the realm of the sacred.  Helen, who is both Mary Magadelene, the fallen, and Mary the mother of Christ, goes to find the grave of her son and savior and is directed to it by the ultimate embodiment of the sacred.  It seems inevitable, in a story which deals with a double life-- the life of public property and the life of private emotion--that the ultimate incarnation of spirit within body in Western culture should be the means by which the secret of spirit is revealed to the reader.  The secret revealed at the end of the story is the same as the one revealed when Mary comes to look for the body of Christ--that is, that he is not here, but has arisen--that is, that he is not body but spirit. The true reality of the story is the reality of the sacred and always hidden world, which is sacred precisely because of its hidden nature.

As is usually the case in short fiction, it is the world of spirit, the world of the sacred that constitutes the  truth, and that truth, regardless of what it appears to be within the profane framework, is always beautiful.  It is not so much that Kipling plays a supernatural trick at the end of the story, but rather that he needs an ultimate embodiment of spirit within body to communicate the ironic reversal of the apparent lie being the most profound truth.  The not-told of the short story is more important than what is told, for what cannot be told directly always constitutes the ideal nature of story itself. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Lodging for the Night"

It is no coincidence that Robert Louis Stevenson, the first British writer to be recognized as a specialist in the short story, is also the champion of the romance form in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  Nor is it accidental that Stevenson's interest in the short-story made him one of the first British short-fiction writers to focus, as did Henry James, on technique and form rather than on content.  Both Lionel Stevenson and Walter Allen say that the watershed for the modern short story began in l878 with the publication of Stevenson's "A Lodging for the Night," with Allen going so far as to claim that the change to the specifically modern short story can be precisely dated at that point.
 Other critics and historians of the British short story, such as T. O. Beachcroft and Wendell Harris agree that Stevenson's stories mark a true departure from previous British short fiction and thus signal the beginning of the modern art of the short story. However, with the exception of noting that Stevenson created a tightly woven, well-made tale, critics have made little effort to explain Stevenson's innovation and how it initiated the "golden age" of British short fiction in the nineties. 
In his essay, "A Gossip on Romance" (l882), Stevenson makes it clear that he wished to return to the well-springs of story, that is, to story for the sake of story, rather than story for the sake of character and conversation--the usual focus of the nineteenth-century novel.  It is not for eloquence or thought that the reader comes to a story, says Stevenson, but rather for a certain sort of incident.  In order to clarify the nature of the short story incident, he argues that whereas drama is is a poetry of conduct, the romance is a poetry of circumstance, reflecting two basic kinds of pleasure in life: the active and the passive.  In the former, we feel in command of our destiny, while in the latter we feel "lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future."                   
Modern psychologists have argued that such a duality between active and passive modes represent a breach between the so-called active adult mode, which directs itself toward living in the real world, and the so-called child-like mode, which is developed around a passive taking-in of the environment.  Many think that the passive attitude is a primitive mode that focuses not on the phenomenal world, but rather on the world as a product of the imagination.  As Stevenson describes it, within this mode, the imagination perceives the world not as an end in itself, but as an opportunity for story; he notes, for example, how certain places fill one with the notion either that something has happened here or else something must happen here.  The world becomes transformed into the stimulus for some hidden meaning which it is the artist's job to lay bare, a task he performs by developing some incident that seems appropriate to the feeling and the place.  Stevenson calls this demand for the fit and striking incident one of the natural appetites, as deeply seated as the desire for knowledge; it is the desire for the realization and apotheosis of the day-dream.
Stevenson says that although the stories of the great creative writers may be nourished with the realities of life, "their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the day-dream."  This focus on the transformation of ideal laws of the imagination into an as-if real incident leads Stevenson to understand story in much the way that Poe and Henry James did; that is, that fiction  objectifies the basic human desire that life have the unity and meaning of narrative and that all circumstances in a narrative must come together like a painting.  As Stevenson says, "the threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration."   
Stevenson knew that English readers in the latter part of the l880s were "apt to look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate," as if indeed such detail of everyday life constituted the only reality.  However, there is another reality, says Stevenson, the reality of imagination and play; and indeed, argues Stevenson, fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child.  Such a point of view was not particularly palatable to the temperament of the late nineteenth-century British reader, who insisted that there must either moral earnestness or else minute realistic detail in fiction for it to have any value.
     Stevenson continued his discussion on the nature of narrative in l884 when he joined his own voice to the debate about the art of fiction then going on between Walter Besant and Henry James.  Taking the side of James, Stevenson insisted that technique rather than content was the basis for narrative as an art form, suggesting a notion that has since been developed to significant theoretical lengths by the Russian Formalist critics of the l920s--that is, if we wish to understand the secret of art, we must not focus on its similarities to external reality, but rather on its basic differences--the distance from life that technique and form create.  The whole secret, says Stevenson, is that art works do not compete with life, but rather like "arithmetic and geometry, turn away their eyes from the gross, coloured and mobile nature at our feet, and regard instead a certain figmentary abstraction."
Narrative flees from external reality and pursues "an independent and creative aim," urges Stevenson.  "So far as it imitates at all, it imitates not life but speech: not the facts of human destiny, but the emphasis and the suppressions with which the human actor tells of them." Stevenson makes an important point here, for he suggests that story telling actually imitates story telling--that its source is in language, the narrative impulse, and what it depicts is not reality but the perception of reality made by one in the process of making a story.  For Stevenson the work of art exists then not by its resemblance to life, "but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work."  Such a self-conscious awareness that story, while bound to incident, is the formal embodiment of daydream and the process of story itself, was essential before the "modern short story" could become possible in the nineteenth century.
"A Lodging for the Night" is a strange candidate for a landmark story that marks the shift to modern short fiction.  Although it is highly detailed and focuses on a specific time-limited situation, it poses more questions about its generic status than clear answers.  Walter Allen says the story is ultimately not satisfying, for it depends too much on being a story about Francis Villon and thus does not exist aesthetically in its own right. And T. O. Beachcroft says that the two levels of truth in the story--fact and fiction--interfere with each other. Critics who have taken the story as fiction, such as Joseph Egan, see it as being an embodiment of an irony between Villon's position as a poet and as a man.  Eagan says the story is a "vivid chronicle of the inevitable tragedy of a soul that, endowed though it is with the loftiest powers of mind and imagination, so gravely lacks fidelity to principles of human decency that the gifts are perverted; and instead of life and growth, their fruit is self-injury and self-degradation."            
There is no doubt that "A Lodging for the Night" is filled with hate and horror, but the interesting question is why it is not a hateful and horrifying story overall.  The key to this irony is the character of Villon himself and his basic situation.  Although the reader may have a conventional expectation that a poet's life should not be focused on practical existence, the structure of the story challenges this expectation.  The basic irony of the story is that it is a tale about a poet whose primary concern is practical existence.  When Villon reacts according to the reader's conventional expectation of a poet, that is, with sympathetic emotion, he gets his pockets picked.  As the narrator of the story suggests, "In many ways, an artistic nature unfits a man for practical existence." 
  A central question of the story is: in what way does Villon represent an artistic nature?  One might legitimately wonder what is the point of a story about an artist who does not act like an artist.  This question raises the central issue of the story, that is, the challenge to our conventional expectation of what an artistic nature actually is.  To examine this issue, one need not go outside the story to refer to the life of the real Villon, except to note that Stevenson chose him because of his known vagabond existence.  Such a figure offers Stevenson the opportunity to examine in a single incident the hypothesis that an artist's focus on survival has nothing to do with his art.
Villon's only concern in the tale is with life and therefore inevitably with death.  However, in the beginning of the story, he mocks death by mocking the sound of the wind blowing through the gibbet as he jokes that they are "all dancing the devil's jig on nothing up there."  After one of the men has been stabbed, Villon breaks into hysterical laughter, "laughing bitterly, as though he would shake himself to pieces."  He then says they will all be hanged and puts out his tongue and throws his head to one side to counterfeit the appearances of one who has been hanged.  After he leaves and tries to find some shelter from the cold and the patrol, he stumbles over something both hard and soft, firm and loose, and gives a little laugh when he discovers it is the body of a dead prostitute.  He indeed makes an emotional response to this discovery later, but only after he takes the two coins from her stocking and wonders at the "dark and pitiable mystery" that she should have died before she spent the money.  Villon himself thinks, "He would like to use all his tallow before the light was blown out and the lantern broken." 
     Villon goes to his spiritual father but is driven away; he goes to his physical mother and has slop dumped on him.  After the first rebuff, the humor of the situation strikes him and he laughs.  After his mother rebuffs him, he thinks of taking a lodging and being fed many favorite delicacies.  When he thinks of "roast fish"--the subject of the ballad he had been writing when the murder took place--the phrase fills him with "an odd mixture of amusement and horror."  Indeed this combination might well summarize the mood of the story itself, for in a strange way it fills the reader with just the same mixture.        
When Villon enters the house of the old soldier, the ambiguous mixture of amusement and horror becomes more obvious.  Whereas the old man takes their little debate seriously, Villon primarily uses it to stall, to allow more time for protection from the cold and to eat and drink the old man's food.  Point by point, Villon gets the old man to admit that in many ways there is no difference between a soldier and a thief, except that the soldier is a greater thief because he is allowed to take more.  Villon becomes quite comfortable as the old man cannot decide to drive him out or to convert him.  He admits there is something more than he can understand in all of Villon's talk, but that he is convinced that Villon is one who has lost his way and made an error in life.  "You are attending to the little wants, and you have totally forgotten the great and only real ones.... For such things as honor and love and faith are not only nobler than food and drink, but indeed I think we desire them more, and suffer more sharply for their absence."  Villon then delivers his own little sermon about his honor which he says he keeps in a box until it is needed.  He notes that he has had the opportunity of killing and robbing the old man but has resisted out of a sense of honor.  When the old man throws him out, Villon goes out to meet the dawn, having indeed found a lodging for the night, thinking: "A very dull old gentleman.... I wonder what his goblets may be worth."        
The secret of the story's ambiguous mixture of horror and amusement depends solely on the nature of the poet Villon, who alternates between attending to the immediate concerns of life to assure his own preservation and taking an amused and distant view of reality which indicates his own broad view of life.  Villon survives not only because of his concern with immediate things, but also because he can take such an ironic view of life and death; this is what allows him to continue and not give in to despair.  The murdered man and the dead prostitute take on a curious unreality to him, except for such details as the man's red hair and the prostitute's two unspent coins.  Otherwise they do not impinge on Villon except to remind him that he may meet the same fate unless he finds lodging for the night.  The final irony is of course that it is his scholarly and poetic nature which saves him, for only by engaging in debate with the old man is he allowed to stay in safety until dawn. Thus the two basic elements of the story--artistic nature and practical existence--are not so much incompatible as they at first seem.  Indeed, it is both Villon's poetic nature and his concern for immediate survival which save him.  The secret of the poetic nature lies in its ability to distance itself from life and death, to mock it and scorn it, to transform it into the source of art.   
It is Stevenson's acute self-consciousness of the significance of structure and the problem of presenting psychic reality as if it were externally manifested that makes critics refer to him as the first "modern" short-story writer in British fiction.  However, Stevenson does not represent a new departure for the English short story; rather, he embodies a movement toward the laying bare of the conventions that have dominated the form since its beginnings.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Theodore Dreiser's "Lost Phoebe" and Jack London's "To Build a Fire"


It is one thing to discuss the naturalism of Theodore Drieser and Jack London in their characteristic novels.  However, when one turns to their canonized short stories, "The Lost Phoebe" and "To Build a Fire," mere naturalism alone is not sufficient to account for their staying power.  "Lost Phoebe" opens with description of old, broken, worn-out things in the house; the loom on which the rug was woven is a "bony skeleton."  The orchard is full of gnarled apple trees, worm eaten and covered with lichens, "so that it had a sad greenish-white, silvery effect in the moonlight." The old couple is described similarly; simple natures 'that fasten themselves like lichens on the stones of circumstances and weather their days to a crumbling conclusion." Henry Reifsneider and his wife Phoebe Ann. She sickens and dies and after five months of living alone "a change began." 
Everything is disordered and it is all a terror to him..  Sometimes the moonlight in the kitchen and a certain combination of furniture, a chair with his coat on it, gave him an exact representation of Phoebe.  He wonders if it is a ghost (this is the Hawthorne neutral territory metaphor)  Wisps of mist in the yard almost make him think he sees her.  he drams of her and thinks he sees her moving in bedroom.  He gets the obsession that she is not dead.  Dreiser says with the aged and feeble it is not a far cry from "the subtleties of illusion to actual hallucination."  "His mind had gone.
  In its place was a fixed illusion." He goes from house to house to look for her; people are sympathetic.  He remembers that one day she said she would leave him.  He now believes that she has over a little spat.  People don't have him put away because of the poor condition of the institutions for the insane.  After being rebuffed many times, he takes to hollering for her.  "The process by which a character assumes the significance of being peculiar, his antics weird, yet harmless, in such a community is often involute and pathetic." (He becomes a character; note how Sherwood Anderson deals with this)  In trying to determine which way to go at a crossroads, he has another hallucination, that Phoebe's spirit tells him which way by throwing his cane; sometimes when it points to the way he has come, he shakes his head philosophically, as if contemplating the unbelievable or an untoward fate..."  He becomes famous.
Seven years he does this and one night in the vicinity of the Red Cliff, brought there by his cane.  He sees w will of the wisp, fluttering bog fires bobbing gracefully among the trees; moonlight an shadows combined to give it a strange form and a stranger reality. He sees her as a gayer younger Phoebe as he knew her when she was a girl.  He sees her across the cliff among a silvery bed of apple trees blooming in the spring.  "and feeling the lure of a world when love was young and Phoebe, as this vision presented her, a delightful epitome of their quondam youth, he gave a gay cry of 'Oh, wait, Phoebe!' and leaped." He is found broken but elated, a smile of peace on delight on his lips.  "No one of all the simple population knew how eagerly and joyously he had found his lost mate."
The basic critical fallacy of the various interpretations of Jack London's "to Build a Fire," claiming for it the status of mythic archetype or classical tragedy, is that the critics insist that the man's death has significance not because of any significance attributed to that death within the story, but rather because of the significance of death in the critical categories they have applied to the story.  The man's death is significant because it symbolizes the frailty of unaccommodated man against cosmic forces, because it leads to psychic rebirth, because it is the tragic result of a tragic flaw and is confronted with "dignity."  The "simple fact" of death is nothing but a simple fact if nothing is at stake but the "mere" loss of biological life, if the character who dies is nothing but a physical body killed to illustrate this "simple fact."
For Jack London, and consequently for the reader, the man in the story is simply a living body and cold is simply a physical fact.  To insist that the story is a symbolic dramatization adumbrated in a symbolic polarity between fire as life and cold as death is to run the risk of saying that the symbolic protagonist's symbolic failure to build the symbolic fire results in his symbolic death.  Of course, such a statement is true in the sense that every art work can be said to "symbolize" or "mediate" a reality that is not identical with the verbal construct of the work itself.  But such a statement tells us nothing about Jack London's story.  Surely Labor and Hendricks realize that both Frank O'Connor and Pascal in their references to human loneliness and the terror of infinite spaces meant something more than the simple fear of being physically alone or losing physical life. 
London's central comment about the protagonist in the story itself clearly indicates the "naturalistic" nature of his Everyman:  "The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.  He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances."  London says that the cold was a simple fact for the man.  "It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe."  If this comment "hardly ripples in the reader's consciousness," as Labor and Hendricks suggest, it is not because it is dropped so "deftly," but rather because London, like his protagonist, is without imagination in this story, because he too is concerned here only with the things of life and not with their significance. The reader may be led to meditate upon the physical limits of man's ability to live in extreme cold, but nothing in the story leads him to the metaphysical conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. 
A close look at the story itself without the lenses of a priori categories reveals that the most significant repetitive motif London uses to chart the man's progressive movement toward death is the gradual loss of contact between the life force of the body and the parts of the body:  "The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow.  The blood of his body recoiled before it.  The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold...  The extremities were the first to feel its absence."  The man realizes this more forcibly when he finds it difficult to use his fingers:  "they seemed remote from his body and from him.  When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it."  The separation is further emphasized when he burns the flesh of his hands without feeling the pain and when he stands and must look down to see if he is really standing.  When he realizes that he is physically unable to kill the dog, he is surprised to find that he must use his eyes to find out where his hands are.
Finally, realizing that the frozen portions of this body are extending, he has a vision of himself that the story has been moving toward, a vision of the self as totally frozen body, not only without psychic life, but without physical life as well.  Picturing the boys finding his body the next day, "he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself.  And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow.  He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow."  The discovery of self in London's story is not the  significant psychic discovery of Oedipus or the Ancient Mariner, but rather the simple physical discovery that the self is body only.

Anyone who sees this purely physical fiction as a story with metaphysical significance does so not as a result of the imagination of Jack London, but as a result of the imagination of his critics.  One can grant that the bare situation of the story has metaphysical potential without granting that London actualizes it, gives it validity.  It is possible that the great white silence in the story could have had the significance it has in Moby Dick, that the cold of space could have had the significance it has in Crane's "The Blue Hotel," that the nothingness that kills the man could have had the significance it has in "Bartleby the Scrivner" or Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."  
It is even possible that the obsessive concern with immediate detail could have had the significance it has in "Big Two-Hearted River."  But without going into what makes such elements metaphysically significant in these true "masterpieces," it is sufficient to say that there is more in the context of these works to encourage such symbolic readings than in London's "To Build a Fire."

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Stephen Crane, "The Blue Hotel"

Stories during the realistic or naturalistic period that succeed and maintain somewhat of a line of tradition for the short story until the twenties of the new century are those that are concerned with the inner complex jungle of the psyche, such as the stories of James, or the impressionistic symbolic world of violence and sensations as in the stories of Crane.
The beginning of modernism with Crane and James's impressionism needs to be discussed.  Basically what impressionism does is to combine the subjectivity of romanticism with the so-called objectivity of realism.  The result is not to focus on reality being communicated by events one after the other in a temporal fashion, but rather reality as communicated by moments of time frozen into a kind of spatial reality by the focus or the impression of the perceiver.  For the impressionism, reality cannot be separated from the superimposition of attitudes, emotions, feelings, etc. of the perceiver.
Conrad in a letter to a friend Edward Garnett in 1897 on Crane's "The Open Boat":  "He certainly is the impressionist."   "He is the only impressionist and only an impressionist."
To Crane in 1897, Conrad wrote:  "Your method is fascinating.  You are a complete impressionist.  The illusions of life come out of your hand without a flaw.  it is not life--which nobody wants--it is art--art for which everyone--the abject and the great--hanker--mostly without knowing it."  H. G. Wells also identified Crane as an impressionist, comparing with  Whistler.  The clearest definition of impressionism insofar as it concerns fiction, was expressed by Henry James in his "Art of Fiction" essay.   A Work of art is not a copy of life, reminded James, but far different, "a personal, a direct impression of life."  James says the supreme virtue of a work of fiction is the "air of reality" it has, "the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life."
Modernism begins in the short story with Stephen Crane and Henry James's impressionism.  Basically what impressionism does is to combine the subjectivity of romanticism with the so-called objectivity of realism.  The result is not to focus on reality being communicated by events one after the other in a temporal fashion, but rather reality as communicated by moments of time frozen into a kind of spatial reality by the focus or the impression of the perceiver.  For the impressionism, reality cannot be separated from the superimposition of attitudes, emotions, feelings, etc. of the perceiver.  Ray B. West says modernism begins with Stephen Crane.  The combination of objective and subjective can be seen clearly in the juxtaposition of the objective point of view and the subjective point of view in "The Open Boat."  The story has been called realistic, naturalistic, symbolic, impressionistic;  this is the same that is said of Conrad and Joyce.
 One of Crane's best-known impressionistic stories is "The Blue Hotel" (1898) in which complex image patterns convey the formal and mechanical unreality of the events.  However, the real issue of unreality versus reality here centers on the character of the Swede.  The irony of the story turns on the precipitating fact that the Swede, as a result of reading dime Western fiction, enters the hotel feeling that he will be killed there.  This obsession that he has entered into a fictional world that has become real prevails until the hotel keeper Scully takes him upstairs and convinces that the town is civilized and real, not barbaric and fictional.  When the Swede returns he is transformed; instead of being a stranger to the conventions he thought existed in the hotel, he becomes familiar and at home with them, too much at home.       
Perhaps the best way to understand the Swede's situation is to see the story as being about the blurring of the lines between the fictional word and the real world.  Scully has convinced the Swede that what he thought was reality--the childlike world of the dime Western--was a game after all.  Thus, the Swede decides to "play" the game.  And indeed the card game forms the center of the story and leads to its violent climax, when the Swede, following the conventions of the Western novel, accuses Johnny of cheating, even though the game is "only for fun."  The fight that follows is a conventional device of the dime Western. 
The Swede wins because of the superiority of his new point of view; he can now self-consciously play the fictional game which Johnny and the others take seriously; while they rage with impotent anger, he only laughs.  The final irony takes place when the Swede, still within the conventions of the game, leaves the hotel and enters a bar.  When he tries to bully the gambler into drinking with him, the gambler, being a professional who does not play for fun, stabs the Swede, who falls with a "cry of supreme astonishment."  Thus the Swede's premonition at the beginning of the story is fulfilled; his initial "error" about the place is not an error at all; it is a violent and barbaric world.
Those late 19th-century writers who have had the most influence on the short story in the 20th century were the ones who not only wished to present so-called "realistic" content, but were also aware of the importance of technique, pattern, and form.  For example, Henry James argued (as Poe did before him) in his influential essay, "The Art of Fiction" (1884), that a fictional work is a "living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found...that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts." 


Friday, May 22, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener"


My students often had trouble with Melville's "Bartleby" because they could not understand why Bartleby acts the way he does; they also were not sure why the narrator doesn't throw him out immediately. Therefore, it might be best to tackle these two problems of motivation at the beginning. The story is difficult because it marks a transition between fabulistic stories, in which characters are two-dimensional representations, and realistic stories, in which they are presented "as-if" they were real. As a result, Bartleby seems to be a fabulistic character, while the narrator seems realistic. There is no way Bartleby can answer the question, "what is the matter with you?" because Bartleby has no matter; that is, he can only react as a two-dimensional representation of passive rebellion. 
The one place in the story when he comes closest to answering the question is when he has decided to do no more copying at all and the narrator asks him why.  Bartleby, standing looking out the window at the blank wall, says, "Can you not see the reason for yourself?"  The narrator, an "as-if-real" character thinks there is something wrong with Bartleby's eyes.  Bartleby, a two-dimensional figure, is referring to the metaphoric representation of his problem--the blank wall. However, it makes no sense to tell an "as-if-real" person that the reason one has decided to do nothing is because of a wall. To do so is to be accused of madness (as Bartleby indeed has been accused of), for it means to mistake a mere object in the world (the wall) for what one has taken the object to mean (meaninglessnes, nothingness, blankness, loneliness, isolation). 
Although the narrator cannot identify with Bartleby's metaphoric mistake, he feels the power of Bartleby's loneliness and need.  He knows that the only cure for Bartleby's isolation is brotherly love, but he is unable to grant that love on Bartleby's terms--that is, that he completely lose himself, give up everything.  For the metaphoric character, it is all or nothing at all; the "as-if-real" character, however, feels he must exist in the practical world.  Melville's story is ambiguous and mysterious because it deals with this most basic human need, and because, like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," it is both fabulistic and realistic at once.  The wall is a "dead letter" for Bartleby because it signifies "nothing," and "nothing" is that which he cannot bear.  Bartleby is a "dead letter" for the narrator, because, although he has intuitions about who or what Bartleby is, he cannot "go all the way" into that realm of madness, the metaphoric, and the sacred that Bartleby inhabits; he can only tell the story over and over, each time trying to understand.
By making "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" the recollections of first-person narrators, Poe and Melville make the combination of romance/story conventions and the rules of realism explicit. Both Bartleby and Roderick seem to be more functions of the story than "as if" real characters.  Although our basic question about both is "what is the matter with them?" indeed they have no matter. One narrator says he cannot connect Usher's expression with any idea of simple humanity; the other says there is nothing ordinarily human about Bartleby.  One narrator continually reiterates his puzzlement and his failure to understand Usher; the other narrator continually tries to get Bartleby to follow the rules of common sense and common usage.  Instead of being caught within legend or allegory, as is Ichabod and Brown, both Usher and Bartleby are caught within that primary process phenomenon whereby they cannot distinguish between the map and the territory; they both make the metaphoric mistake of projecting their own subjectivity on to the external world and then responding to it as if it were external.             
In "Fall of the House of Usher," this mistake centers on Roderick as the ultimate romantic artist who desires to cut himself off from external reality and live within the realm of pure imagination, although he fears the loss of self such an ultimate gesture would inevitably entail.  His belief that the house has sentience because of the particular organization of its parts is a metaphor for the romantic aesthetic of organic unity. In a sense, Usher does live within the artwork, which is both the house and the obsession he has created.  Whereas the fabula of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is indeed Usher's aesthetic obsession, the discourse is the teller's account of the transformation of Usher into a figure of imagination who ultimately vanishes into pure subjectivity.
In "Bartleby," instead of a realistic character entering into the aesthetic realm of primary process, as is the case in "Usher," the movement is reversed, and an obsessed aesthetic figure invades the realm of secondary process reality, realistically represented as the practical and prudent world of the law office on wall street.  We can no more ask what is the matter with Bartleby than we can of Usher.  We cannot know what he is thinking, for he is thinking nothing; he simply is the obsessed embodiment of his own obsession.  For Bartleby, there is no distinction between the wall as signifier and the wall as signified; the wall is the reason he "prefers not to."  The only answer to the question of what the wall is and what it signifies is, or course, ironically, "nothing."  The wall is a dead letter to Bartleby, just as Bartleby himself becomes a dead letter to the narrator.  Again, whereas the fabula here is Bartleby's obsession, the discourse is the narrator's impossible attempt to recuperate a metaphoric figure into the realm of secondary process thinking.
The recollection of the "story" of Roderick and Bartleby by the two narrators makes possible in discourse what was not possible in the story itself. Although the story in each case focuses on the narrators trying to understand primary process figures by secondary process means, the discourse in each understands the figures in the only possible way to understand them--by rhetorical structure and by metaphor. What is "realistic" about such early short stories as "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby" is what Erich Heller says is new about nineteenth-century realism generally; that is, "the passion for understanding, the desire for rational appropriation, the driving force toward the expropriation of the mystery."  These two stories are dramatizations of just that effort at appropriation.
The problem is that the tellers, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner at the beginning of the century and Conrad's Marlowe at the end, can only tell the story, are unable to reduce it to conceptual content; however, they can tell the story in such a way that makes it different from the mere story events--by narrating a story that in itself is about a character caught by the demands of discourse.   The short story is thus transformed into a tissue of repetitions, parallels, and metaphoric motif; that is to say, paradigmatic structure emerges out of the mere syntagmatic succession or sequence of events because the world of the story itself is seemingly determined by the obsession of the central, function-bound character. 

Mimetic characters, such as the narrators in these two stories, do not make a story realistic if the situations they confront evade their power to incorporate them within the expectations of the familiar, natural world.  The realistic impulse creates a realistic work only when the impulse succeeds in convincing the reader that the phenomenon described has been, or can be, naturally, socially or psychologically incorporated.  If the mystery is solved by placing the phenomena within the framework of the natural, the social, or the psychological, then the realistic succeeds. However,  if the knowledge arrived at is inchoate, metaphysical, aesthetic; that is, not satisfactorily solved by the natural, social, or psychological, the only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.  The thematized interrelationship between metonymic "as if" real characters and metaphoric "mythic" reality I have been outlining here has, in my opinion, characterized the  development of the short story up to the present day.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Mary Wilkins Freeman, "A New England Nun"


It is a giant geographical and emotional leap from Chopin's steamy passionate Louisiana to the cold and restrained New England world of Mary Wilkins Freeman's most famous story "A New England Nun." Mary Wilkins Freeman marks an advance over Jewett in terms of moving the story farther away from local color regionalism and closer to the tight thematic structure of Chekhov, James, and Anderson.  Very early, her impressionism was noted:  A reviewer in the London Spectator said about her stories.  "The stories are among the most remarkable feats of what we may call literary impressionism in our language, so powerful do they stamp on the reader's mind the image of the classes and individuals they portray without spending on the picture a single redundant word, a single superfluous word." Howells, however, said in a review of New England Nun and Other Stories in 1891, that he had a fear that she would like to write romantic stories.  Says she should write one and get it out of her system and then return "to the right exercise of a gift which is one of the most precious in fiction," that is an art in the "service of reality."
Indeed, what Freeman did was combine the detail of realism with the thematic patterning pioneered by Chekhov, Joyce, Turgenev, and Anderson. Consequently, as Edward Foster points out, the problem in trying to understand her stories is that we must combine seemingly incompatible generic terms.  "Miss Wilkins wrote local color stories of an inner feeling at once romantic, naturalistic, and symbolic and of a surface texture realistic and impressionistic."  "A New England Nun," her most famous story, a story that Perry Westbrook calls a perfect story, worthy of standing with the best of Chekhov or Mansfield, these conventions are combined in a quintessential way.  Moreover, the story embodies what Frank O'Connor has called the characteristic lonely voice of the short story, a characteristic that Arthur Machen noted in her stories as early as 1902, in a helpful comment that could characterize Sherwood Anderson's stories as well.  "I think the whole impression which one receives from these tales is one of loneliness, of isolation." Machen's point is that great literature is not generated by the drawing room, but by the expression of the "withdrawal of the soul; it is the endeavor of every age to return to the first age, to an age, if you like, of savages, when a man crept away to the rocks or to the forests that he might utter, all alone, the secrets of his own soul.... It is from this mood of lonely reverie and ecstasy that literature proceeds, and I think that the sense of all this is diffused through Miss Wilkins New England stories."
"A New England Nun" is in the tradition of Chekhov and Mansfield, although it was written before either.  The central character is a Jamesian figure shut away from the flow of everyday life.   Her stories combine the realistic and the impressionistic.  Note also the combination of romanticism and realism. Focus in "Nun" is Louisa's sense of what she considers almost "artistic" control over the order and neatness of her solitary home.  She rejects the masculine disorder of her impending marriage.  Compare this story with Mansfield's "Miss Brill"--being on the outside of life.  Story filled with imagery of her nun-like existence.  Edward Foster points out the characteristic short story conventions by noting many questions whose answers would have yielded real understanding are never raised in the story, e.g. what was the relationship between Louisa's mother and father?  what kind of love was she capable of when she and Joe were first engaged?  "It is easy to dismiss these questions," says Foster, "by noting that Miss Wilkins was contriving a short story and not a novel....It seems that 'A New England Nun' is a triumph not only of art but of reticence."  Indeed the same kind of reticence that later characterizes Anderson, Hemingway, and Carver.
The story opens with the atmosphere of the natural world being echoed within Louisa.  "There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence--a very premonition of rest and hush and night."  This is good description of the structure of the story itself.  It is described in the next sentence:  "This soft diurnal commotion was over Louisa Ellis also."   She is described in terms of the "feminine appurtenances" around her, which from "long use and constant association, a very part of her personality."  (This is the metonymic connection of realism; she is the sum of the objects around her).  She is described in terms of adverbs, the way she does things--peacefully, carefully, precisely. She sets out her tea with "as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self."  And indeed, she is; she does things, but she is passive as well. She lives on sugared currants, sweet cakes and little white biscuits; eats salad in "delicate, pecking way" (identified with the bird in the cage in her house, the little yellow canary. She wears three aprons, one for eating, one for sewing, one for company--not for sexual protection, but for ordering and compartmentalizing, wearing appropriate uniform for each activity.
Joe Daggett fills the room (see this in Lawrence's "Horse-Dealer's Daughter").  They have nothing to say to each other. When he leaves, she brushes up his tracks and thus leaves no trace, so that she is left alone.  Joe is afraid he will put a clumsy foot through a "fairy web" and he knows she is always watching lest he should.  During the fourteen year absence, she had entered a path "so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at the grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side."  Narrator says this was a subtle happening that they were both too simple to understand--what is so subtle about it?  Is this the key to the story?
The winds of romance have another name for Joe, and for her the wind had never more than murmured. (She is not romantic; she is realistic, attention to detail.  Is this the ultimate end of realism--the life of Louisa; ironic if so, for the life of Louisa is a life ordered as the romantic artist saw life should be in the art work.  Work this out--wrong to think that order means sterility, just as wrong to think that idealism means lifeless. She worries about leaving her home, her "neat, maidenly possessions" are like the faces of old friends (again the metonymy image)  She makes aromatic essences in her little still and loves to sew a linen seam, not for "use" but for the "simple mild pleasure which she took in it."
"Louisa had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home."  She worries about the disorder of coarse masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter (note she is not concerned about Joe so much as she as about his things--metonymy) Caesar was a hermit of a dog, chained up for fourteen years for a sin in puppyhood.  "His reputation overshadowed him, so that he lost his own proper outlines and looked darkly vague and enormous."  She pictures him on the rampage through the village, seeing innocent children bleeding in his path. "she had great faith in his ferocity."
She overhears Lily and Joe, Lily has a masterful way that would  have "beseemed a princess." When Louisa and Joe part the next day she is like a queen "who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession." Now Caesar will never "go on a rampage through the unguarded village.  Now the little canary might turn itself into a peaceful yellow ball night after night, and have no need to wake and flutter with wild terror against its bars." (note the image of her and Caesar, not as an image of Joe, but an image of controlled libido) When Lily goes by Louisa feels no qualms, for if she had sold her birthright for a bowl of pottage, she did not know it for the taste of the pottage was so delicious.  "She gazed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness....Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloisterd nun."  The similarity between this ending, both in terms of imagery and in terms of theme, to Anderson's "Hands" is striking.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kate Chopin's "Desiree's Baby"


Perhaps the most insistent indicator of the movement from local color to well-made story is the stories of Kate Chopin, who was more influenced by Maupassant's tightly unified stories than by the southern local colorists.  After reading Maupassant, Chopin wrote, "Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old-fashioned mechanism and stage trappings that in a vague, ununthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."  Claiming that Maupassant escaped authority and tradition and spoke in a direct and simple way, Chopin says, "I like to cherish the delusion that he has spoken to no one else do directly, so intimately as he does to me."
Of the over forty stories published in Bayou Folk 1894) and Night in Acadie (1897), some of the best-known are relatively simple formal stories that are very close to the anecdotal stories or O. Henry.  For example, "Madame Celestin's Divorce" is a simple story on the Maupassant mode about lawyer Paxton who advises Madame to divorce her drinking, wife-beating husband.  The lawyer thinks he will then marry her.  He falls into the habit of dreaming of taking a wife.  But she meets him on the street and tells him that her husband is home and has promised to turn over a new leaf. "La Belle Zoraide" is touching story about a servant who falls in love, but her mistress does not want to lose her.  When the servant has a child, the mistress sends it away and tells her it is dead.  Servant pines away, caring for a bundle of rags.  When the mistress brings the baby to her, she will have nothing to do with it and lives to be an old woman with her bundle of rags.
"Athenaise" is more thematically complex, about a woman who marries and then regrets it and goes home.  Does not hate husband.  "It's jus' being married that I detes' an' despise.  I hate being Mrs Cazeau, an' would wan to be Athenaise Miche again.  I can't stan' to live with a man; to have him always there; his coats an' pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet--washing them in my tub, befo' my very eyes, ugh!"  She goes back to him when she knows she is pregnant.  Also, more powerful and complex is "The Storm, about Bobinot and Calixta, and Alcee who comes and has sex with Calixta while Bobinot is in town and there is a storm. "When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips.  Her mouth was a fountain of delight.  And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life's mystery." At the end everyone is happy.  "So the storm passed and every one was happy."  Both her husband and his wife are content not knowing.
Chopin's best-known and most successful story is "Desiree's Baby," for in it the formal structure of the story and its Maupassant-like reverse ending is made more complex by the importance of the social issue on which it depends.  This was Chopin's most successful story during her lifetime and remains her most famous story, receiving renewed attention since the advent of feminist criticism.  However, many recent critics feel they must apologize for or justify the story's trick ending, for it suggests Chopin's most important literary forefather, Guy de Maupassant.  Emily Toth claims that Chopin goes beyond the Maupassant convention; Peggy Skaggs says that the ending is more complex and more revelatory of Chopin's view of life than it may at first seem; and Cynthia Griffin Wolff is only willing to compare Chopin's vision to Maupassant's by  claiming that both focus on the "inescapable fact that even our most vital moments must be experienced on the boundary--always threatening to slip away from us into something else, into some dark, undefined contingency."
The story begins with the introduction of Désirée with a baby, which motivates a return to the past and the reader's introduction to Désirée herself as a baby and thus the central mystery of her origin.  There is really no reason for Désirée to be a foundling in this story except to provide the mystery of her parentage and thus to throw a shadow over her own child's ancestry.  The motif of "shadow" introduces the story's most significant pattern.  Désirée is not only found in the "shadow" of a big stone pillar, but eighteen years later while lying asleep in that same shadow--as if she has never moved--she is seen by Armand (the prince in this abortive fairy tale) who falls in love with her, "as if struck by a pistol shot."
The importance of paternal names is introduced very early, for Armand does not care that Désirée is nameless (The name her foster mother has given her suggests that simply she was desired), for this means he can all the more easily impose his own family name--one of the oldest and proudest in Mississippi--on her when they marry.  And indeed Désirée says Armand is particularly proud that the child is a boy who will bear his name.  Armand's home shows little of the softness of a woman, suggesting instead the strictness of a male monastic life, with the roof coming down steep and black like a cowl and with big solemn oaks whose branches shadow the house like a pall.  The "shadow" metaphor is further emphasized by Désirée's growing suspicion that there is some air of mystery about the house and by her efforts to "penetrate the threatening mist" about her.

Like "Cask of Amontillado," "The Cop and the Anthem," and "Tennessee's Partner," Chopin's story is structured to illustrate a point or lay bare a hidden truth, rather than to "realistically" present events motivated by "as-if" real characters.  "Désirée's Baby" may seem more important or serious than the stories of Poe, O. Henry, and Harte because of its socially significant themes of racism and sexism, but its narrative structure may be no more complex.  Still, you might want students to compare these stories in terms of their ironic patterning and the relative complexity of their themes.