Abbreviated Wisdom: How the Short Story Works


Claiming it has an intensity that the novel cannot achieve, John Cheever defined the short story as “the appeasement of pain.” He writes, “In a stuck ski lift, a sinking boat, a dentist’s office, or a doctor’s the very point of death, one tells oneself a short story.” While this statement is surely true, it gives an insufficient accounting of the disparate roles played by that elliptic, perverse, ambitious genre known as “the short story.” That is, if some offer, indeed, a kind of appeasement (Cheever’s own duplicitous Goodbye, My Brother), just as often they constitute an aggressive indictment (O’Connor’s Good Country People) or an implicit mise en question of the reader’s credentials/motives in reading (Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil). The very brevity of the form, moreover, permits the short story to make pithy comment on matters political (Gordimer’s The Train from Rhodesia) or pointed reflection concerning the essential nature of fiction (James’s The Turn of the Screw). In this course we will explore the range of potential inherent in this form and probe its peculiar prosperity at certain historical moments (both Decadence and Walter Benjamin figure on the agenda). Furthermore, Jacobson’s essay on metaphor and metonymy will illuminate speculation on why consummate practitioners of the novel—Lawrence, Cather, Gordiner, Balzac, and Wharton—have so often resorted to this “condensation.” Open to first-year students only.