What is Short Story?
Everyone loves a good story. You must have listened to your grandmother’s stories on cold wintry nights and felt happy or sad on hearing it. A story sometimes takes you to a world other than the one that you are living in and you are left fascinated by it. A short story is perhaps easier to read and less time-consuming than a novel which takes a long time to finish reading. But, perhaps a short story also is harder to write than a novel as it has to create its effect in a limited number of words. Like miniature paintings, they are tightly bound and every detail counts. In this unit, you will acquire an understanding of what goes on to make a good short story. This unit deals with short story as a literary genre.
The term ‘genre’ implies types or classes of literature. A short story is a brief fictional prose narrative that is shorter than a novel and that usually deals with only a few characters. In a short story, the action and dialogue of its characters are organised into the artful pattern of a plot. The short story is usually concerned with a single effect conveyed in only one or a few significant episodes. The form encourages economy of setting, concise narrative, and the omission of a complex plot. Character is disclosed in action and dramatic encounter but is seldom fully developed. Despite its relatively limited scope, though, a short story is often judged by its ability to provide a “complete” or satisfying treatment of its characters and subject.
- Parable: a story with a moral.
- Plethora: excessive number or amount.
- Fable: traditional short stories teaching a moral lesson, often showing animals as human characters.
Therefore, this article introduces you to the short story as a literary form and also elaborates on the different characteristics which a good short story needs to have. You will also be introduced to some famous short story writers of the literary world and some of the very famous and beautiful short stories which they have written. Some of these stories have remained imprinted on the minds of the readers for their sheer brilliance of expression and sensitive human touch.
ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT
Let us now look back on the beginnings of the short story. Some argue that the forefathers of the short story are the myths and legends of yesterday, but although the short story as a literary form existed in the remote past in some crude form, its popularity and prominence is of recent origin. You have probably heard of the Parables of Jesus Christ. These parables were narrated by Jesus Christ to his disciples to teach them moral lessons. The simple and candid way in which these stories are told stirs the heart of the listeners as well as the readers. The fable, which is a short narrative in prose or verse and which points to a moral is also in a sense a short story. You must have heard about Aesop’s fables like ‘The Lion and the Mouse’, ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’, ‘The Old Man and the Bundle of Sticks’, etc. These are all specimens of early short stories. Classical Indian literature too has a plethora of fables which can be deemed short stories too. The characters are mostly animals through which certain moral values are personified. For example, we have ‘The Tiger and the Fox’, The Elephant and the Fox’, ‘The Old Tiger and the Traveller’, etc. We have the Buddhist Jataka tales, the Panchatantra and the Boddhisatva tales. The narratives about the brothers Cain and Abel, the Prodigal son, Ruth, Jezebel, and Judith in the Bible are all short stories. The famous Canterbury Tales of Chaucer are also short stories even though they are written in verse form.
You will be surprised to know that a number of the most famous short stories in the world have been written in the last one hundred fifty years or so. Thus, we see that it is only in the modern times that the short story has been able to garner huge significance and recognition. Though the short story existed earlier, it was practised extensively during the nineteenth century. The literary beginnings of the short story can be traced back to Sketch Book by Washington Irving who was the first to acknowledge the individuality of this literary form. Edgar Allan Poe was the first great master of the modern short story. In his short stories, we encounter various fictional genres, such as science fiction, detective fiction, etc. Although it had its literary beginning in America, the influence in other parts of the world was immense. Guy de Maupassant, the eminent French short story writer was greatly influenced by Poe. In Russia Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov, etc. made great contribution to the development of short story. O’ Henry was one of the most popular story writers of America. However, it was only during the twentieth century that the short story became popular in England. Rudyard Kipling pioneered this genre and imparted originality to it. Some of his stories include “The Soldiers”, “The Plain Tales from the Hill”, etc. Kipling never imitated the French or the Russians and wrote from his personal experiences and observation. You must have heard about the detective stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A.C. Doyle. Thus, we see some of the short stories which have become part of common lore are the detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, the mystery with a touch of the Gothic stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the moving stories of human relationships of O. Henry, the pleasant stories of Guy de Maupassant and the veritable treasure of our very own Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories.
SHORT STORY AS A LITERARY FORM
Let us first see what H. G. Wells has to say about a short story: “A short story is or should be a simple thing; aims at producing one single vivid effect; it has to seize the attention at the outset, and never relaxing, gathers it together more and more until the climax is reached. The limits of the human capacity to attend closely, therefore, set a limit to it; it must explode and finish before interruption occurs or, fatigue sets in.” It must be noted that a short story has to make an impression upon the mind of the reader within a short period of time, say an hour or two. In fact, someone once said that a short story is something which can be “read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.” The aim of all good literature, as you might know, is to delight its readers and expand their understanding of men and manners. The short story is not different in this aspect. Today, it is a very popular form of study and its popularity owes itself to various causes. In this age of rush and restlessness, a lot of factors draw a reader to the sweet pleasure of reading a short story. A long novel like Gone With the Wind, War and Peace or The Grapes of Wrath cannot provide immediate pleasure to the modern reader and so hardly suits his time and temper (this is the age of instant coffee, instant messaging, instant food after all!). Here, a short story amply serves the purpose of the modern man in providing pleasure. The famous novelist, Isabel Allende says: “Novels are, for me, adding up details… Short stories are more difficult- they have to be perfect, complete in themselves.”
However, this is not to say that a short story is a rival or a substitute for a novel. Each has its own place and importance in the history of literary genres. It would also be gravely wrong to brand a short story as a brief novel. The short story also cannot compete with the novel in the sense that it cannot exhibit life in all its variety and complexity for it requires a broader canvas. As a matter of fact, the short story is very difficult to classify as it is one of the most elusive forms, and it is also very difficult to define it within a particular limit. Reading a short story can be a more profound and moving experience than reading a novel because of the sheer intensity of a short story. If you ask “How long should a short story be?” it will be impossible to construct it within a said limit. There are ‘long’ short stories and ‘very short’ short stories. Somerset Maugham commented in his preface to his Complete Short Stories that “the shortest item runs to about 1600 words and the longest to about 20,000 words.” In fact, most short stories fall somewhere between these two extremes.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SHORT STORY
Let us now discuss the important characteristics which a good short story needs to have. We have already learnt that a short story is not easy to define precisely. Poe has described the short story as a prose narrative, “requiring from half an hour to one or two hours for its perusal.” William Henry Hudson says that a short story is something which “can be easily read at a single sitting.” As has already been mentioned, the short story is a better choice than a novel as it can afford reading pleasure within a short period of time. The short story is characterised by brevity. It should be brief, that is, one should be able to read it at one sitting. Therefore, it is necessary to develop the ideas that can be effectively developed within the prescribed limits. It should be written in a precise manner, clear in outline and yet complete in itself. Unnecessary details should be omitted. A good short story writer does not strive to explain everything. Incidents and necessary details must be selected deliberately. But this is not to say that brevity is the only characteristic of a short story.
A short story is basically a narrative which deals with certain incidents and which involves certain characters around which the story revolves. It should create a single impression and effect upon the reader’s mind. Generally, a short story deals with incidents covering a short period of time. But in stories like Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, Maupassant’s La Parure, even “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov (which we will deal with later), the narrative covers a long period of time. However, the concentration of interest and the singleness of impression must be maintained in order to classify the short story as a really good one.
In keeping with the oral storytelling tradition, a short story tells a story. So, storytelling forms an important aspect of a short story. A story should have a plot which is constituted of events and actions and which achieve certain artistic and emotional effects. And if the plot is stirring, then the story, without doubt, will be beautiful. A good plot is also commonly said to have unity of action. This means that the parts of the story must be so well connected that any restructuring will upset the story as a whole.
But let us not forget that a good plot in a short story depends upon the characters who act out the incidents. Plot and character are interdependent concepts. Henry James, the novelist, once commented: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” However, a short story cannot have a huge cast of characters as in a novel and also the characters’ traits cannot de delineated in a detailed manner. But you must understand that the greatest short story writers have beautifully portrayed characters that are truly remarkable and unforgettable. Some characters like Rahamat in Rabindranath Tagore’s “Kabuliwallah”, Old Behrman in O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf”, the giant in Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” are to be cherished forever.
The language of the short story should be a ‘model of economy’. The words should contribute towards effectiveness of the story. Thus, apt words and telling phrases are employed.
The plot, characters and the atmosphere must work in tandem for a short story to be effective. The short story also must have a beginning, middle and an end, i.e. it should have a proper structural design. The world’s best known short stories adhere to this dictum and delight us with their descriptions of men and manners.
We have learnt that a short story needs to have a good plot. But do you know that the plot and the story are distinguishable from each other? A story is only a summary of the chronology of the events. When we tell a story, we say first something happens, then something else and so on. But it is only when we specify how one event is related to the other, and how all the events are ordered and organised to achieve their particular effects, that the synopsis begins to be adequate to the plot.
SOME FAMOUS SHORT STORY WRITERS
Till now, we have discussed what a short story is and what the characteristics of a good short story are. Let us now have a look at the some of the most famous short story writers of the world who have enthralled readers with their brilliant depiction of the various facets of life.
- Gothic: connected with the Goths (a Germanic people who fought against the Roman Empire).Gothic elements are very gloomy and horrifying.
Edgar Allan Poe is generally regarded as the father of the modern short story, although there has been much debate about this. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Poe’s contribution to the genre is awesome. He especially excelled in the detective story genre which had elements of the Gothic. Some of his famous stories include “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Purloined Letter”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Black Cat”, “The Gold Bug”, “The Masque of the Red Death” etc. Besides Poe, the other famous American short story writers include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Jack London, Henry James and O. Henry. O. Henry is a master of the surprise ending and his stories are characterised by a ‘twist in the tale’. Alexander Pushkin was among the most prolific of the Russian realistic short story writers. Gogol is another Russian short story writer whose stories about everyday occurrences of life and common people moved the readers. You will be interested to know that Gogol has even featured in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake as the central character is named Gogol Ganguly. “The Overcoat” is one of Gogol’s seminal stories. Leo Tolstoy, besides being a novelist, is also noted for his short stories. Anton Chekhov (whom we will discuss in a later unit) had a profound influence on the short story. Guy de Maupassant is the most outstanding of French short story writers.
He and Chekhov are generally regarded as the masters of the genre. Honore de Balzac, Alphonse Daudet, and Gustave Flaubert are other notable French short story writers. Among the English short story writers, mention may be made of Thomas Hardy and his Wessex Tales, Arthur Conan Doyle and his The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, H. G. Wells and his science fiction stories; D. H. Lawrence wrote some great stories dealing with human relationships. Saki wrote witty, ironic and elegant stories of enduring interest. The Czech writer Franz Kafka wrote weird short stories which also display his skill in handling his pet themes of the plight of individuals in the modern society. The Spanish American authors Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier also published short stories which are highly regarded.
There are Indian short story writers too who have proved themselves as successful practitioners in the genre. Among them are Rabindranath Tagore, Prem Chand, Ismat Chugtai, Ruskin Bond, Shashi Deshpande, Amrita Pritam and Khushwant Singh. Our very own Assamese short story writers like the extremely brilliant Lakshminath Bezbarua, Bhabendranath Saikia, Shilabhadra, Lakshminandan Bora, Saurav Chaliha also demand
We have therefore seen that the short story has evolved as a specific form of literary art like any other form of art, having its own characteristics and its own laws. The genre has been instrumental in providing its readers’ pleasure and wisdom and all that good art must offer.
Note: Khushwant Singh thinks that there is something special about the Indian short story. In his own words: “It (the Indian short story) sticks to the traditional rules of the craft. It is in fact short and not a novella or an abridged novel. It revolves around one or at the most two or three characters and does not have a long dramatis personae as in novels. It is limited in time and space and does not span decades or spread out in different locales. It also has a well- formulated central theme and does not touch upon several topics or clashes of personalities. It has a distinct beginning, a build-up and usually a dramatic end, frequently an unexpected one which sums up the story. Western short stories tend to be prolix leaving the reader to guess what it is all about. That is why many critics believe that the West has lost the art of writing short stories. In India, on the other hand, the short story is as vibrant as ever”.
After going through this unit, you have learnt that the short story is one of the most popular forms of literature today. You have seen, how the short story differs from the novel and also learnt about the beginnings of the genre to the present day. The characteristics of the short story as well as some of its most famous practitioners have also been discussed to enhance your knowledge about this popular literary type. Thus, it is clear that as a literary form, it has become very popular in the present time.
Nowadays stories are published on a wide variety of themes most of which have dramatic climax along with a surprise ending.
CHECK YOUR PROGRESS | QUESTIONS
Q. Can you say that a short story is a short novel?
Ans. No, a short story can not be called a novel because it
cannot exhibit life in all its variety and complexity like the novel. Thus it would be gravely wrong to brand a short story as a brief novel.
Q. How does Hudson define a short story?
Ans. William Henry Hudson says that a short story is something which “can be easily read at a single sitting.”
Q. What is difference between plot and story?
Ans. A story is only a summary of the chronology of the event … But it is only when we specify how one event is related to the other, and how all the events are ordered and organised so as to achieve their particular effects, that the synopsis begins to be adequate to the plot.
Q. Henry’s short stories are characterised by a…………………….
Ans. ‘twist in the tale’.
Q 8: Why is Arthur Conan Doyle famous?
Ans. He is famous for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Q. Write the names of two English short story writers.
Ans. Conan Doyle, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, etc.