The Literary Formula of the Unresolved Impasse 

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Once upon a time stories that were short ended firmly and conventionally, for as long as the purpose of story was to present a moral or a fable or a folktale, once the moral was exemplified, the fable recounted, or the folktale retold, the story came to an unequivocal close. Even in the nineteenth century when these conventional types of tales became displaced and their previously spiritual or sacred meaning became psychologised or socialised, their endings were fairly firm because of their link with their plotted and purposeful origin in the fable, exemplum, folktale form.

The Russian Formalists have made clear to us that we know a convention is nearing exhaustion when it reaches a point when it is parodied. The focus on the end can go no farther after O. Henry, who is the master parodist of endings. The rebellion against the so-called O. Henry-type story, which was so imitated after the turn of the century, is well known. It is a nice irony that while the Russians were admiring O. Henry’s stories for their technique, the English and Americans were admiring Anton Chekhov for his seemingly technique-less slices of life.

However, I suggest that in spite of the seeming lack of formalism in Chekhov’s stories –  his refusal to focus on the end, and consequently his famous open-endedness – they began a new short story convention or pattern. The general issues of this new formula can be charted in the critical literature of the time. As early as 1916, critics were using the term “artistic” to distinguish the stories of Chekhov from those commercial stories of O. Henry, suggesting that such stories have a quality rarely found in the novel in the same degree of intensity – a “curious, haunting, and suggestive quality” which required the participation of the reader.

By the 1940s and 50s, the artistic short story was so firmly established that it was ready for codification and even for condemnation, with some critics complaining that editors were so busy disparaging the formula story of the heirs of O. Henry that they created another formula: “the literary formula of the unresolved impasse”.

Unending Endings of Anton Chekov 

There are many of these so-called open-ended stories of Chekhov. I will mention only two of the most famous: “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and “Gooseberries”:

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.

His pipe, which lay on the table, smelled strongly of burnt tobacco, and Burkin, who could not sleep for a long time, kept wondering where the unpleasant odor came from. The rain beat against the window panes all night.

Both of these reflect what Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky has called “illusory endings,” that is, they are not endings at all, but rather prompts that allow the reader to construct an ending out of the ineffable or to read a metaphor as an ending. Shklovsky says illusory endings exploit the reader’s desire to round off a story, to bring it to closure. The open end of “The Lady with the Pet Dog” announces what will become a new convention of short story endings – the apparent forestalling of the end by saying that the end is still far off, even as this statement of immanence ends the story. In “Gooseberries”, the smell of the pipe that bothers Burkin is the unresolved nature of the ironic meaning of the story that his companion has told within the story. It is a metaphor for something unresolved that remains to disturb the reader.

Katherine Anne Mansfield is the most immediate heir of the Chekhovian formulaic open end. The most famous Mansfield ending to suggest the inexpressible is the close of “The Garden Party”, when Laura stutters “‘Isn’t life—Isn’t life?—’But what life was she couldn’t explain.”

Although James Joyce’s stories often end with his tacit epiphanies, his most respected story, “The Dead”, is a textbook case that transforms hard matter into metaphor and which can only be resolved aesthetically. Throughout the story the hard details remain mere realistic matter; even the snow which is introduced casually into the story on the shoes of the party-goers’ feet is merely the cold white stuff that covers the ground – that is, until the end of the story when Gabriel’s recognition transforms it into a metaphor that closes the story by covering over everything.

Bernard Malamud is one of the most influential writers within this tradition of stories that end with aesthetic rather than dramatic resolutions. Critic Earl Rovit has pointed out that although Malamud’s manner is that of the teller of tales, his technique or structure is poetic and symbolic. In talking about “The Magic Barrel” in particular, Rovit says that “the aesthetic form of the story rounds upon itself and the ‘meaning’ of the story – the precise evaluation of forces – is left to the reader”. In this way irreconcilable forces are resolved aesthetically.

The basic paradox inherent in all narrative is the writer’s restriction to the dimension of time juxtaposed against his or her desire to create a structure that reflects an atemporal theme. Because of the shortness of the short story, the form gives up the sense of real time, but it compensates for this loss by focusing on significance, pattern, meaning. The problem is, of course, from the point of view of the writer’s task, how to convert mere events, one thing after another, into significance. The problem for the writer’s relationship to the reader is that once the reader is encouraged to keep turning pages to find out what happens next, some way must found to make him see that what happens next is not what is important. This basic incompatibility, noted by many critics, is more obvious in the short form, which, in its frequent focus on a frozen moment, seems atemporal. Julio Cortezar says:

“The short story writer knows that he can’t proceed cumulatively, that time is not his ally. His only solution is to work vertically, heading up or down in literary space.”

The detachment from circumstances in the short story makes it necessary to have every word exactly right. For it is not circumstances the writer is concerned with, except when these circumstances are pregnant with meaning. The words chosen have to be exactly right to convey or capture the writer’s subjective impression of the significance of the event, character, thing that he or she is describing. This means that the short story must be rigorously executed; it must tend, says Herbert Gold to “control and formalise experience” and “strike hot like the lyric poem.”

When critics scorn the short story for the artificiality of its highly unified structure, when they take it to task for the fakery of its placing so much emphasis on its ending, they obviously forget in their demand that all narratives follow the conventions of realism that the essence of art is artificiality. Consequently, they forget that the short story is the most artificial and thus the most artistic of all narrative forms.


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Charles E. May is professor emeritus of literature at California State University, Long Beach, and one of Mash’s honourable Guest Judges. He has published nine books, including his most recent I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, over 300 articles and reviews, and lectured in the US, Norway, Ireland, Portugal, Canada, Spain, Italy, and France. Visit Professor May’s blog, Reading the Short Story.

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