The End in Constant View 

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Since the beginning of the short story as a historically recognised genre in the early nineteenth century, short story writers and critics have agreed that the form depends on a unified structure and consequently a formalised ending more than the novel does. “It is only with the denouement constantly in view,” Edgar Allan Poe insisted, “that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention”.

If academic critics have found this affirmation about the short story abhorrent, believing that it sounds cold-blooded and mechanical (and indeed Poe’s famous description of the back-to-front composition of “The Raven” makes the work sound like a lifeless bit of taxidermy), perhaps it is because criticism, in its confidence that the novel constitutes the narrative norm, has failed to examine the generic characteristics of that unique genre which Poe called the “tale proper” and which we call the short story.

Those few critics, however, who have taken the short story seriously have made some helpful suggestions about the significance of the endings of the form that we should not ignore. The relationship between the short story’s emphasis on its endings and its primarily lyrical form has been noted by Georg Lukacs, who says that since the short story focuses on a fragment of life lifted out of life’s totality, it is “stamped with its origin in the author’s will”. The short story thus is “inevitably lyrical because of the author’s form-giving, structuring, delimiting act.”


The ‘Tale Proper’: a natural or artificial way of storytelling?

Other writers and critics have also noted that this aspect of the short story is directly related to its most obvious and most important generic characteristic, that is, its shortness. Sean O’Faolain says that:

“Short stories are artificial, for there are no such things as short stories in life; to chop up life is to pretend that it is not continuous but rather spasmodic or intermittent.”

O’Faolain’s countryman Frank O’Connor has also said that there is no such thing as essential form for the short story. Whereas in the novel essential form is the following of the chronological development of character or incident as we see it in life, the short story writer must select a point at which the author can approach life. The result, according to many critics, is a method that, rather than being natural or essential, often tends to fakery, for it creates a unity that is “abnormally artificial and intense”.

What I wish to explore is whether these various claims and criticisms of the form – its insistence on unity, its dependence on tone, its lyrical nature, its focus on the end, its artificiality, its unhealthy limitedness – are intrinsically related and therefore constitute a cluster of generic characteristics that typify the short story as a form, or that at least occur more frequently in the short story than in the novel.

The first step that needs to be taken in understanding the so-called artificiality of the short story is to remind us of the artificiality of endings in fiction generally. Henry James is perhaps the first modern fiction theorist to note that stopping places in fiction are never natural. As James puts it, since universally relations stop nowhere, “the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so”.

Any time we arrange a narrative sequence to reflect meaning, that is, any time we make use of the processes of repetition and metaphor to reconstruct a temporal flow into metaphoric sets, in short, any time we create a fiction, we inevitably “fake” the ending. For this faking of an ending is the very act that makes meaning out of the “one damned thing after another” that a mere series of events always is; such faking thus constitutes the essence of narrative art. What I will argue is that the short story has always been a form closer to this aesthetic, artistic, and therefore inevitably artificial aspect of narrative than the novel has. I agree with V. S. Pritchett, who simply echoes what many short story writers and readers have long noted: the short story answers the “primitive craving for art: beauty of shape, wit, paradox, the longing to see dramatic pattern”.


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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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