Sunday, May 31, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Guy de Maupassant, "La Horla"

After the success of Boule de Suif ("Ball of Fat")  in 1880, the touching little story of the prostitute who reluctantly goes to bed with a Prussian officer in order to procure the release of her traveling companions and then is scorned by them, Guy de Maupassant began to write anecdotal articles for two newspapers, the practice of which served as preparation for writing the short stories that were to make him famous.
His first full volume of short fiction appeared in 1881 under the title of his second important story, La Maison Tellier ("Madame Tellier's House"), a comic piece about a group of prostitutes who attend a First Communion. After the success of this book, Maupassant published numerous stories in newspapers and periodicals which were then reprinted in the volumes of his stories that began to appear at the rate of approximately two a year. Many of his stories created a great deal of controversy among the French critics of the time because he dared to focus on the experiences of so-called "lowlife" characters.
However, in addition to the realistic stories of the lower-class, Maupassant also experimented with mystery tales, many of which are reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Instead of depending on the supernatural, these stories focus on some mysterious dimension of reality which is justified rationally by the central character.  As a result, the reader is never quite sure whether this realm exists in actuality or whether it is a product of the obsessed mind of the narrator.
The year 1884 saw the publication of Maupassant's most famous short story, La Parure, usually translated as "The Necklace," which has become one of the most famous short stories in any language. Indeed, it has become so famous that it is the story which most commonly comes to mind when Maupassant's name is mentioned, in spite of the fact that most critics agree that Maupassant's creation of tone and character in such stories as Boule de Suif and La Maison Tellier are much more representative of his genius than this ironically-plotted little trick story about the woman who wasted her entire life to pay back a lost necklace, only to discover that it was fake.
La Horla, a story of psychological horror, is actually the pinnacle of several stories of madness which Maupassant had experimented with previously.  The story focuses on the central character's intuition of a reality which surrounds human life but remains imperceptible to the senses.  Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his lucid understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.
What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being due to something external to himself.  Such a desire is Maupassant's way of universalizing the story, for he well knew that human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is indeed the very basis of hallucination. The story is too strongly controlled to be the work of a madman.
Of all the Maupassant tales that focus on madness, hallucination, obsession, and the mystery of a dimension beyond the senses, the most sustained and deservedly the most famous is "The Horla."  Although many critics point to the autobiographical elements in this story (for during its writing Maupassant was possessed by the increasing madness caused by syphilis), still others suggest that the work stands on its own merits as a masterpiece of psychological horror. Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.
The story begins with many of the same themes that Maupassant had earlier developed in "Letter from a Madman," even at times using much of the same language as that story.  The narrator begins considering the mystery of the invisible, the weakness of the senses to perceive all that is out there in the world, and the theory that if there were other senses, one could discover many more things about the world around human life.  The second predominant Maupassant theme here is that of apprehension, a sense of some imminent danger, a presentiment of something yet to come.  This apprehension, which the narrator calls a disease, is accompanied by nightmares, a sense of some external force suffocating him while he sleeps, and the conviction that there is something following him; yet when he turns around there is nothing there.
This sense of something existing outside the self but not visible to the ordinary senses is pushed even further when the narrator begins to believe that there are actual creatures who exist in this invisible dimension.  This conviction is then developed into an idea that when the mind is asleep an alien being takes control of the body and makes it obey. All of these ideas then lead easily into the concept of mesmerism or hypnotism; for under hypnosis it seems as if an alien being has control of our actions which, when we awake, we have no awareness of.  Although the narrator doubts his sanity, he also feels he is in complete possession of all his faculties, and he becomes even more convinced that an invisible creature is making him do things that his own mind does not direct him to do.  Thus he finally believes that there are Invisible Ones in the world, creatures who have always existed and who have haunted mankind even though they cannot be seen.
The final event to convince him of the external, as opposed to the psychological, existence of the creatures, is a newspaper article about an epidemic of madness in Brazil in which people seem possessed by vampire-like creatures who feed on them during sleep.  He remembers a Brazilian ship that sailed past his window and believes that one of the creatures has jumped ship to possess him.  Now he knows that the reign of man on earth is over and that the forces of the Horla which man has always feared--forces called spirits, genii, fairies, hobgoblins, witches, devils, and imps--will enslave man.
Finally, in a scene which was used earlier in "A Letter from a Madman," he "sees" the creature in the mirror when its presence blurs his own image by coming between him and the mirror. He decides to destroy the creature by locking it in his room and burning his house to the ground. As he watches the house burn and realizes that his servants are burning too, he wonders if indeed the Horla is dead, for he considers that it cannot, like man, be prematurely destroyed.  His final thought is since the Horla is not dead he shall have to kill himself; the story ends with that decision.
What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being something external to himself.  This universalizes the story, for human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence named gods, devils, spirits, etc. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is the very basis of hallucination.
Because of his ability to transform the short mystery tale from a primitive oral form based on legend into a sophisticated modern form in which mystery originates within the complex mind of man, Maupassant is an important figure in marking the transition between the nineteenth-century tale of the supernatural and the twentieth-century short story of psychological obsession.
Guy de Maupassant is one of those writers whose contribution to literature is often overshadowed by the tragic facts of his life and whose real experimentation is often ignored in favor of his more popular innovations.  Too often it is his promiscuity and profligate Parisian life style that receives the most attention from the casual reader.  As if to provide evidence for the payment Maupassant had to make for such a lifestyle, these readers then point to the supposed madness-inspired story La Horla--a fit ending for one who not only wrote about prostitutes but paid for their dangerous favors as well with his life.
However, Maupassant's real place as a writer belongs with such innovators of the short-story form as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry.  Too often, whereas such writers as Turgenev and Chekhov are admired for their so-called lyricism and realistic vignettes, writers such as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks.  Maupassant falls somewhere in between.  On the one hand, he indeed mastered the ability to create the tight little ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending, but on the other hand he also had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus keenly on a limited number of characters in a luminous situation. The Soviet short-story writer Isaac Babel has perhaps paid the ultimate tribute to Maupassant in one of his stories by noting how Maupassant knew the power of a period placed in just the right place.

Maupassant had as much to do with the development of the short-story genre in the late nineteenth century Chekhov did. in somewhat different ways.  However, because such stories as "The Necklace" seem so deceptively simple and trivial, his experiment with the form has often been ignored.  Not until the short story itself receives the recognition it deserves as a respectable literary genre will Guy de Maupassant receive the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the perfection of the form.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Short Story Month--2015--Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Sharer"

As Eudora Welty once said, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery.  And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again.  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" (164). The implication of this awareness of “mystery” is that the short story often seems to focus on a moment out of time, or on time as mythically perceived, the way Ernest Cassirer and Mircea Eliade have described it.
  More so than in the novel, the short story most often deals with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause.  As Welty says, the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape" (163).  To Conrad’s Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
Joseph Conrad confronts the problem of manifesting the secret, hidden life in the external world explicitly in his two most famous short works.  In "The Heart of Darkness" he creates a world like that of "Young Goodman Brown," in which landscape symbolically represents the ultimate reaches of psychic reality; moreover he develops a plot structure very much like Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," in which a realistic narrator confronts a metaphoric extremist
In "The Secret Sharer," Conrad seeks a method to reveal the secret conflict of his protagonist by having the young captain project that conflict outside of himself.  Just as Hamlet creates a play within a play to externalize his conflict so that he can cope with it, the captain in Conrad's story creates the character of Leggatt to provide him with the means by which he can deal with his own insecurity and establish his own identity.  Conrad pushes to metaphoric extremes the common psychological phenomenon of inner conflict creating a split in the self so that it seems as if there are two separate voices engaged in a dialogue. 
Leggatt, whose name suggests he is a representative or emissary, is the objectified side of the captain's Hamlet-like, preoccupied, subjective self.  The story thus is torn between the plot, which focuses on the efforts of the captain to protect and conceal the mysterious stranger, and the mind of the captain, which obsessively persists in perceiving and describing the stranger as his other self, his double.  Although some critics have suggested that the constant repetition of the similarity between the captain and Leggatt is tedious and the weakest part of the work, the repetition is a purposeful Conrad tactic of overdetermination to suggest both that Leggatt is a romance-like symbolic projection of the captain's psyche and at the same time a real character with his own objective existence to whom the captain reacts in an obsessive way.
The  story begins with the central motif of the captain's lack of identity.  He says he is not only a stranger on the ship but also a stranger to himself, and he wonders if he will "turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." And indeed, many metaphorical details in the story suggest Leggatt has been summoned forth from the captain's unconscious as an aspect of the self with which he must deal.
 For example, Leggatt is first seen as a silvery, fish-like naked body emerging from the sea to whom the captain responds in a matter-of-fact way, as if he were expecting him.  The image of the captain looking straight down into a face upturned exactly under his own is clearly an allusion to the myth of Narcissus.  However, instead of the captain falling into his reflection, as in a number of German romantic tales, the reflection comes out of the mirror-like sea and takes on a problematical independent existence.  After Leggatt puts on one of the captain's sleeping suits, the captain says, it was "as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror."
In Conrad's story the mysterious mythic emissary from the unconscious is presented as an objective existence in the world, not as a dreamlike or allegorical projection.  Although we know that others have seen Leggatt as an objective presence before the story begins, no one but the captain sees him during the actual events of the story.  The anecdote of the scorpion in the inkwell is the mise en abyme in "The Secret Sharer" in which we see the entire story reflected in miniature.  Leggatt comes out of the inky water of the sea, which represents both the unconscious of the captain/Conrad and the inkwell source of all stories, the Ocean of Story.  At the end of "The Secret Sharer," Leggatt's movement back into the sea, representing the captain's reintegration of the split in his self, is his movement back into the inkwell.  Leggatt, the oneiric creation of both the captain and the artist, says "I am off the face of the earth now.  As I came at night so shall I go."
Making manifest that which is hidden is the primarily structural force of "The Secret Sharer."  This objectification of inner reality marks the beginning of the “modern” mythical method of fictional narration, as Thomas Mann defines it in his famous essay, "Freud and the Future."  Mann explicitly calls for a modern fiction that mixes the psychological and the mythical, for he affirms as truth the Schopenhauer‑Freud perception that life itself is a "mingling of the individual elements and the formal stock‑in‑trade; a mingling in which the individual, as it were, only lifts his head above the formal and impersonal elements."  Much of the "extra‑personal," Mann insists, "much unconscious identification, much that is conventional and schematic, is none the less decisive for the experience not only of the artist but of the human being in genera. (421)." 
Our interest in fictional characters, Mann implies, is, regardless of the events in which they are enmeshed, always centrally located in the process by which they try to find their identity, the means by which they attempt to answer the age‑old Oedipal question:  Who am I?  In such a process the two forces of the subjective and the schematic are decisive.  As Robert Langbaum has described it, when you realize that introspection leads to nothing but endless reflection, you see that the only way to find out who you are is to don a mask and step into a story.  "The point is," says Langbaum, "at that level of experience where events fall into a pattern. . . they are an objectification of your deepest will, since they make you do things other than you consciously intend; so that in responding like a marionette to the necessities of the story, you actually find out what you really want and who you really are" (175). 
This creation of an "as-if" real character to embody psychic processes marks the impressionistic extension of the romantic trend that began the short story form earlier in the nineteenth century.
Much of the reason for this sense of an elusive and mysterious “secret” life of the characters of short stories derives from its origins in the folk tale and later the romance form.  Whereas the focus of the novel is often on multiple inner consciousnesses, the focus of the short story is more often on an obsessed inner consciousness.  Characters in short fiction seem somewhat like allegorical figures because of their obsessive focus on some single task: Goodman Brown's journey into the forest, Old Phoenix's trip to get the healing medicine, Bartleby's preference not to, Nick Adam's fishing trip at Big, Two-Hearted River.  The hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next. 
The genius of the short story form is that whereas short stories often could indeed be the seedbeds of novels, they do not communicate as novels do.  And if we try to read them as if they were novels, they will never haunt us with their sense of that mysterious secret life within all of us.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--O. Henry, "The Cop and the Anthem"

O. Henry poses the same problem for a history of the short story as Bret Harte does, for as with Harte, O. Henry's influence far exceeds his excellence as a short-story writer.  However, like Harte, O. Henry was the right man at the right time, a writer who pushed the well-made formal nature of the short story to its furthest extreme.  O. Henry--a local colorist writer focusing on the city of New York who so emphasized the ironic pattern of his stories that his name has become associated with the formulaic short story.  O. Henry's popularity and his output was unprecedented.  By l920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the U.S.   Ironically, while he was being scolded by the serious critics in America, who preferred the more serious slice- of-life stories of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, in Russia, serious critics were praising O. Henry for his mastery of the complex conventions of story-telling.
With O. Henry, the endings of stories became a formalization of the kind of ironic reversals that Boccaccio had made popular during the Renaissance.  Boris Ejxenbaum was one of the first critics to recognize that what O. Henry had discovered was something about the short story that was unique and characteristic of the form.  In his brief study, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, he argued that the short story and the novel were not only different but inherently at odds, for while the novel is a syncretic form developed from collections or stories or complicated by manners and morals material, the short story is a fundamental or elementary form.  The difference between the two is a difference in essence, said Exjenbaum, a difference conditioned by the distinction between big and small forms.  Admittedly basing his analysis largely on the stories of O. Henry, he argued that the story was constructed on the basic of some contradiction or incongruity whereby, by itself very essence the story amassed its whole weight toward its ending.
As Eichenbaum has said, there is something of the structure of the joke about short stories in that they depend on the ending.  However, the question here is why did Chekhov move away from the snappy ending while O. Henry continued to make it his forte?  This may be an example of the usual prejudice against the short story or else a misunderstanding of what constitutes its basic nature. There is obviously some relationship between the structure of the short story and the structure of the joke, but there is obviously an important difference.  What needs to be distinguished is the basic underlying structure of the joke (Freud may be the best help for this, as well as Koestler and other students of creativity) and the use of this structure for more serious material.  Mickey Spillane once said that the only reason people listen to a joke or read a story is to find out how it ends. Thus jokes are closed forms with a punch line, whereas the open short story (like Eastman's notion of open parable) does not focus on closure in the traditional sense.  I must check Kermode here on the notion of endings.
O. Henry wrote so many short stories so rapidly that he became the quintessential example of Edward O'Brien's accusation that the short story had become a machine-made product.  However, his best-known stories are those that reflect the kind of reverse ending that he was famous for: "The Gift of the Magi," "Mammon and the Archer," "The Cop and the Anthem," "The Furnished Room" and "A Municipal Report," perhaps his most respected story.  O. Henry is the writer with which Frederick Pattee ends his class history of the development of the short story, Pattee citing him as the master of "That reminds me of another" story, but a writer, for all his smooth slick style, of no depth, no thought, no philosophy, no moral complexity.  The problem of O. Henry is that he is a master of technique, and to cite him as a representative short story writer is simply to say that technique is more important for the short story than them.  This does not mean, however, that there is no thematic/structural complexity in O. Henry's stories, as a brief look at "The Cop and the Anthem" will show.
 At the turn of the century the name O. Henry was synonymous with the short story as a form.  And for many readers still, the notion of what a short story is derives from the kind of trick or twist ending associated with such O. Henry stories as "The Gift of the Magi," that sentimental story about the poor young couple--he who sold his watch to buy combs for her long hair and she who sold her hair to a wig-maker to buy a chain for his gold watch.  Not many O. Henry stories deal with serious issues in a serious way; they are either sentimental or else they are comically ironic.  "The Cop and the Anthem" is of the latter kind, but just because it does not carry a heavy theme or a serious idea does not mean that it will not repay a close study.
"The Cop and the Anthem" can be used to make students sensitive to the importance of point of view and ironic structure.  The first thing students might notice about this story is the language, riddled as it is with high-sounding esoteric words.  Students might be asked to characterize someone who says "cognizant of the fact that" rather than "knew," or "eleemosynary" rather than "charitable."  The technique O. Henry uses here is to give the storyteller language typical of the central character, Soapy, the bum, as a way of mildly ironically mocking him.  The language makes Soapy sound important, and indeed the irony of his character and situation is that although he is a bum, he acts as if he is of a high social status. 
Indeed the character of Soapy is as important to this story as its ironic structure, in which every action that he takes creates a reaction opposite to the one he wishes.  The basic irony of the story is that as long as Soapy is "free," that is, loose in the city, he is not free at all, because of the coming winter.  However, if he were in prison, he would indeed be "free" to enjoy life without fear.  However, Soapy does not want something for nothing; he is willing to pay for his room and board by going to some effort to commit an act that, according to the law, will get him in jail.  He knows that what society calls charity is not charity at all, but that he will have to "pay" for philanthropy by being preached at and lectured to.
The additional problem, of course, is that although Soapy breaks the law, he does not act like a criminal.  Moreover, although Soapy tries to be a "crook" there are real crooks out there, such as the umbrella thief, who thwart him, for he finds he cannot really steal from one who has already stolen.  Finally, there are those, such as the streetwalker, who although they might not look as if they were outside the law, are indeed criminals; one cannot violate the legal rights of one who is outside the law. 

Thus, Soapy seems "doomed to liberty."  Of course, a story with an ironic, mocking tone such as this one, in which a bum who talks like a gentleman tries to get himself thrown into jail but continually fails, can only end one way.  The ultimate irony of course is that Soapy, who does not want something for nothing and who goes to a great deal to get thrown into jail, finally does get thrown into jail for doing precisely nothing. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--George Moore, "Julia Cahill's Curse" and "Homesickness"

In Ireland, the beginnings of the modern short story is credited to George Moore.  Such critics of the short story as H. E. Bates and Frank O'Connor have both suggested that the modern Irish short story begins with Moore, particularly in l903 with the publication of The Untilled Field.  Many critics have agreed with Moore's own typically immodest assessment that the book was a "frontier book, between the new and the old style" of fiction. Letter of March l, l9l5, to Edmund Gosse.  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 many critics have suggested, the book had an influence on the collection of short stories that has become perhaps the most influential short story collection in the 20th century, James Joyce's Dubliners.  As Graham Hough has suggested, although no writer has carried farther than Joyce "a dual allegiance to an exhaustive naturalism on the one hand and a complex aesthetic symbolism on the other.... Dubliners has an obvious ancestor in Moore's stories in The Untilled Field.
However, no one has really looked very carefully at the nature of Moore's short stories, especially in such a way as to suggest how they are so typical of the short story genre.  One can certainly agree with Hough and others that the stories seem unique for their time in combining the content of French naturalism with the concern for style of the fin de siecle aesthetics; however, this does not really give us a means by which to approach the individual stories.  For there is another important element about Moore's short stories which contributes to their story nature--that is, their allegiance to the folk tale form.  "Art begins in the irresponsible imaginations of the people," said Moore in Avowals, and "as literature rises out of speech it must always retain the accent of speech."
Moreover, no one has looked very closely at another aspect of Moore's view of story, that is, his notion that reality itself must be understood by means of story.  In "Recollections" and "Thoughts" about Moore, both John Eglinton and  W. B Yeats suggest that Moore felt he could understand a subject if he could see it as "story." Eglinton says that Moore felt he possessed a special faculty of this sort that distinguished him from others, and Yeats adds that he would do anything to make "his audience believe that the story running in his head at the moment had happened, had only just happened."
This allegiance to the folk tale form, the primal origins of story itself, and this need to understand reality by means of story can be clearly seen in one of Moore's best-known and most anthologized stories from The Untilled Field--"Julia Cahill's Curse."  "Julia Cahill's Curse" is a slight piece, but a fairly clear example of Moore's effort to use the folk tale mode as a means to understand social reality.  The basic situation is that of a story being told by a driver to the first-person narrator, who hearing the name, Julia Cahill, urges the driver to tell him her story.  The story, which indeed constitutes the bulk of "Julia Cahill's Curse," is of an event that took place twenty years previous when the Priest Father Madden had Julia put out of the parish, and consequently Julia put a curse on the parish 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 Julia, represents church control of such freedom.        
After preaching in church that Julia is the evil spirit that makes men mad, Father Madden threatens to change Julia's father into a rabbit if he does not turn her out.  The teller of the tale has no verification of the Priest's words, since all those who were in church that day have either died or gone to America, nor does he have anything more than hearsay that Julia was seen raising her arms to the sky to curse the village;  however, as the teller and listener near the village itself and the listener sees the ruins of the houses, the listener reflects, "I could see he believed the story, and for the moment I, too, believed in an outcast Venus becoming the evil spirit of a village that would not accept her as divine."      
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 is really about is the nature of story used to understand social reality.  What we have here 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.  The teller of the tale believes that the desertion of the parish is due to Julia's curse.  The listener of the tale does not believe in the curse in this literal way but, as he says, for the moment he too believes it, at least in some way that is not made explicit.  It is the nature of the belief that constitutes the difference and thus the significance of the story.  Whereas the folk may believe such a tale literally, the modern listener believes it in a symbolic way.  And indeed, what Moore does here is to present a story that is responded to within the story itself in both the old way and the new way, that is, as a literal story of magic and as a symbolic story to account for the breakdown of the parish life--the tension between  pagan freedom and Church control.  Thus, "Julia Cahill's Curse" is a clear example of Moore's use of story to understand social reality.      
Frank O'Connor singles out "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" (37).  Although O'Connor says that as a piece of artistic organization, "Home Sickness" is perfect, one's first impression of the story is of its structural simplicity. 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 throughout of Bryden's detachment from the reality of Irish life and his preference to live within a sort of reverie of nostalgia which he is disappointed to find unrealized in reality. He takes no interest in the life of the people and does not so much decide to marry Margaret Dirken as he passively allows the impending marriage to be announced.
Although Bryden finds himself longing 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 he left behind him," and although he blames the ignorance and primitive nature of the folk who cling to religious authority as his reason to return to America; the conclusion of the story suggests a more subtle and universal theme by unifying the detached dream-like mood of reverie that has been counterpointed throughout against Irish village reality. For the story is truly about the unbridgeable gap between restless reality and dream-like memory.        
The style of the story shifts in the penultimate paragraph from what at first seems like a straightforward realistic presentation of Bryden's detached disappointment with Irish life to a compressed summary account of his ordinary and uneventful life in America.  After his wife has died and his children are married, he sits in front of the fire, an old man, and "a vague, tender reverie" of Margaret floats up to his consciousness.  "His wife and children passed out of mind, and it seemed to him that a memory was the only real thing he possessed, and the desire to see Margaret again grew intense."
The final lyrical paragraph of the story seems in sharp contrast to the realistic style of what has preceded it, in a way that is very similar to the  contrast between realism and concluding lyricism that characterizes Joyce's "The Dead":  "There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself, and his unchanging, silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken.  The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it, and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes around it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills."
 However, as in "The Dead," the concluding lyrical style is not so much in contrast to the former style of the story as it first appears, for what Moore has accomplished is what characterizes the so-called "modern" style of Chekhov, Anderson, and Joyce.  What seems to be mere verisimilitude in the story actually is a subtle development of a unified tone of reverie and memory that dominates over the description of everyday reality.  Although the story on the surface seems to focus on external reality, the real emphasis, as is so often the case with Chekhov and Joyce, is on inner life, for which the details of external reality are significant either only by contrast or as images of subjective reality.  Although the concluding revelation of the "unchanging, silent life" of Bryden at first seems unprepared for, much as the lyrical evocation of Gabriel's life does in "The Dead," a closer look at the story reveals that the entire story is dominated by images that suggest the predominance of the subjective life of reverie and imagination over the ordinary life of the everyday.      
This typically modern theme of presenting the predominance of the inner life of imagination over that of the everyday can be seen in almost a paradigmatic form in "The Clerk's Quest." Edward Dempsey, the "obscure, clandestine, taciturn" little clerk, is the quintessential embodiment of what Frank O'Connor has called the "little man" who has predominated in the short story form since Gogol's Akakey Akakeivitch and Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener.  The story is similar to the tales of the break up of ordinary reality so favored by Chekhov as well as the stories of the lonely little man possessed by an inner secret life frequently developed by Sherwood Anderson.       

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015-Saki, "The Open Window" and "Sredni Vashtar"

Most often Saki's stories are discussed as satires, a focus which both Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett insist upon in their well-known essays on Saki's work.  Pritchett says that Saki belongs to the early period of the sadistic reversal in English comic and satiric writing, a period when the chief target was the "cult of convention." And Greene notes that Saki only satirizes those who deserve no sympathy.  Like a chivalrous highwayman, says Greene, he only robs from the rich.  However, no one has discussed the typical structure of Saki's use the story-telling theme.  Because Saki marks a shift in Edwardian short fiction to the trick ending story that dominates popular short stories both in England and America at the turn of the century, his stories often focus on the nature of story itself.  
     Saki's most anthologized story, "The Open Window," is a clear example of a fiction that depends for its impact on the means by which story itself works.  Frampton Nuttel goes to the country for his health and calls at the home of a woman wo whom his sister has referred him.  While waiting for the woman, Nuttel hears a story from the niece about a great tragedy that occurred three years earlier when the aunt's husband and her two younger brothers went hunting and were lost in a bog.  Just as the niece tells Nuttel that the aunt keeps the window open for the men in case they should return, the aunt enters for desultory conversation until quite expectantly she sees the three men coming in toward the window.  Nuttel, terrified of what he himself sees as ghosts, bolts out, at which point the young girl establishes the true situation by beginning a story which Nuttel has supposedly told her about a pack of pariah dogs which frightened him in a cemetery on the banks of the Ganges.  The  punchline from Saki is: "Romance at short notice was her specialty."
"The Open Window" is a particularly clear example of foregrounding the process of story, for what makes it work is Nuttel's uncertainty about the nature of the story Vera tells and the reader's uncertanity about the nature of the story Saki writes.  Our first response is to take Vera's story as truth; we have no more means than Nuttel does, to determine it is not.  When Mrs. Sappelton enters and rattles on about her husband going snipe hunting, both the reader and Nuttel begin to think that they are involved in a bit of harmless madness.
However, when Nuttel looks out the window and sees the three men, the reader's apprehension of the story shifts to a conviction that it is a conventional ghost story.  It is only when Vera begins her next tale that the reader knows that Nuttel and the reader have been made the butt of Saki's story-made joke. Vera is indeed the typical Saki artist who manipulates the reader into various possibilities about the genre of the story only to reveal that it is about the process of turning fantasy into supposed fact, only to reveal it as fantasy after all.  For Frampton Nuttel, the story becomes a reality to which he cannot passively respond, but which involves him by actually threatening to enter the world he occupies. It works similarly for the reader until, in a gesture that lays bare what always underlies story, Saki makes clear that what we took to be real is only imagination, that is, story itself.                      
Romance at short notice is also the specialty of the bachelor in the train car in "The Story-Teller," a typical Saki persona.  Becoming tired of the children's noise and the ineffectual aunt who tries to entertain them with a moral story about a good little girl, the bachelor tells them a story about a  little girl who is "horribly good," a detail which the children feel has the ring of truth about it.  As the story proceeds, prompted by questions from the children, it is clear that the bachelor, in typical fairy-tale fashion, is extemporizing, moving freely in response to the questions themselves.  The crux of the story is that Bertha, a little girl who has many medals for her goodness, is allowed to go into a special park which no other children are permitted to enter.  While there, she is chased by a wolf and hides in the bushes, but her medals clink together and reveal her hiding place, and the wolf eats up her to the last morsel.  The children say the story has a beautiful ending, that in fact it is the most beautiful ending they have ever heard, even the only beautiful story they have ever heard.  Although the aunt scolds him for telling the children an improper story that will undermine years of careful teaching, the bachelor replies that at least it kept them quiet for ten minutes.  He leaves amused that the aunt will be assailed in public by the children for the next six months by demands for an improper story.
The point of the story is the story itself, of course, for Saki here makes it clear that story does not exist for the sake of a moral lesson, but rather for the delight it gives in reversing one's usual expectations.  The story the bachelor tells fulfills the unconscious expectations of the children even as it defeats the conscious expectations of the conventional moral tale that begins "Once there was a little girl who was extraordinarily good."  The bachelor's tale is truly more properly a fairy tale than the moral tale the aunt tells.  As Bruno Bettleheim has recently suggested, fairy tales fulfill the unconscious demands of children that they are not outcasts because of their own unconscious and often forbidden desires.  Such stories, says Bettleheim, are more valuable for children than the moral stories of everyday reality that are often told to them by adults, for they objectify unconscious desires. "The Story-Teller" embodies the basic nature of both the method and the motivation for fairy tale itself.
"Sredni Vashtar" is the quintessential Saki story about the romancer who makes his imagination become real; however, the tone of this story is more serious than "The Open Window," for more is at stake here.  The protagonist is a ten-year-old boy who is only given five more years to live.  But his illness  has a metaphorical significance, for it is the illness of being forced by the real world to give up his world of imagination.  The embodiment of the threat to his imagination is Mrs. De Ropp, his cousin and guardian, who "the three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real."  Conradin sees the other two-fifths summed up in himself and his imagination.  Although Conradin knows that one day he will have to succumb to the pressure of necessary things such as restrictions and dullness, he also knows that without his imagination, born of his loneliness he would have succumbed long ago.
Like all adults, Mrs. De Ropp is only concerned with what is for Conradin's own good, but her pleasure in thwarting him is only matched by his hatred for her.  Thus, he locks her out of his imagination as something unclean.  As is typical of Saki's children, Conradin has his hiding place from external reality--a tool shed where he keeps his two pets, a hen and a polecat-ferret.  The tool-shed is both playroom and cathedral, which Conradin peoples with creatures of his own imagination.  The ferret becomes the central figure in the cathedral, a creature that Conradin both intensely fears and treasures.  By naming it Sredni Vashtar he transforms it into a god and his relationship to it into a religion.  Conradin's religion, rather than being the passive religion of Christianity, represents the "fierce impatient side of things."
When Mrs. De Ropp, unaware of the existence of the ferret, has the hen sold, Conradin asks a boon of his god, that it do one thing for him, although he does not specify what that thing is.  As Mrs. De Ropp, whom Conradin refers to simply as "the Woman," continues her persecution of him, she goes to the tool shed to see what else he is hiding there.  Conradin continues to pray his prayer for a boon from Sredni Vashtar, but he believes that the Woman, representing external adult reality, will win as she always does.  He chants when she goes to his playhouse, and when she does not come out, hope and triumph begin to creep into his heart.  Presently the animal comes out with dark stains around its jaws and throat; it goes to the stream, drinks, and then crosses the bridge and is seen no more: "Such was the passing of Sredni Vashtar." Later when the maid discovers the body of Mrs. De Ropp and wonders who will break it to the poor child, Conradin makes himself another piece of toast.

It is obvious that plot and tone are everything in Saki's stories.  Character is limited to embodiments of a dichotomy between the child-like world, which is the world of story and the imagination, and the adult world, which is the world of reality and control.  For Saki, as for the short story form generally, it is the world of imagination that triumphs over the world of external reality.  "Sredni Vashtar" is a particularly sardonic version of the kind of story that Conrad Aiken later tells in "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," or that Poe earlier told in "The Fall of the House of Usher."  It is a story about imagination  predominating over the reality of the every-day world.  What makes this particular story somewhat different from the other Saki stories is not only the horror of the final end of the hated Woman, for that is surely a wish-fulfillment we can accept as such; rather it is the ambiguous nature of her end.  The ferret is surely real, but it has been transformed by Conradin into a creature of his own imagination that acts out and objectifies his wishes--truly an example of the god-like magic power of primitive and child-like belief. Such is the romantic and primitive notion that dominates the short-story form throughout the nineteenth century.

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."