Modernist Short Stories

The term modernism is used to define a loose literary movement of the early 20th century; its dates are subject to question, but some critics situate it between about 1890 and the outbreak of World War II. It can also be used to denote a style of literature rather than a particular cohesive movement. As a term describing both a movement and a mode it has several defining characteristics, including experimentation with narrative technique, structure, style, the use of time and space, and individual subjectivity and consciousness. In addition, it has come to be associated with the exploration of certain themes, such as alienation and isolation, gender and sexuality, and the darker side of human psychology. These elements may all be seen in the short fiction of the period; indeed, many critics claim that the modernist period was a time that saw a great fl ourishing of the genre.

The 19th century was a high point for the British novel, yet the short story remained, for much of the century, undefined and amorphous. Editors, readers, and critics did not reach a consensus on what constituted the short story, also referred to as a sketch, tale, or miscellany. Authors famed for their novels, such as Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, expressed ambivalence about the short story as a form. There existed no real audience for the short story; fiction writers relied primarily on readers of novels for their income and audience, so they devoted their time to writing triple-decker novels. Rather than expend their energy on short fiction, they would serialize their novels, guaranteeing an audience for themselves and profits for their editors and publishers. The Victorian period witnessed a dramatic rise in literacy as well as in the publishing of periodicals, contributing to the growth of an audience for fiction. Serials such as Bentley’s Miscellany, London Magazine, and Athenaeum specialized in and encouraged the publication of fiction (see Magazines). At the same time, however, short stories were often relegated to the status of filler material, and it was conventional wisdom in the publishing world that collecting an author’s short fiction in book form for sale was bad business: There was simply no market for it.

Several intersecting factors in the 1880s and 1890s contributed to the solidification and flourishing of the short story as a genre. First, there emerged a large number of new periodicals devoted to fiction: The Strand Magazine and Blackwood’s, as well as shorterlived but nonetheless important serials like The Yellow Bookand the Savoy. At the same time, the triple-decker novel and its serialization fell in popularity. Later there would be a number of crucial “little magazines,” such as the Egoist, the Little Review, and the New Age, dedicated to the publishing of serious modernist fiction. Second, practitioners of the genre found the short story conducive to the kinds of aesthetic, philosophical, and psychological explorations they wished to make. Whereas earlier the amorphous quality of the short story made it difficult to define, publish, and market, writers in the late 19th and early 20th century discovered that such a flexible genre lent itself to technical, stylistic, and thematic experiments. The movement toward psychological realism, as well as symbolism and the  Aestheticism of the fin-de-siècle could be accommodated in the short story as practiced by precursors of modernism, such as Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad; by true modernist short story writers, such as Katherine Mansfield; and by novelists who wrote and published short stories, such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence. Collections such as Hardy’s Life’s Little Ironies (1894), Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), Mansfield’s Bliss (1920), Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday (1921), and Lawrence’s England, My England (1922) showed the growing interest in short story collections as valid and valuable contributions to the literary marketplace and exemplified the transformation of narrative through modernist concerns, both technical and thematic. Often, these concerns intersect, particularly in the interest in and representation of individual subjectivity.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, in the 1890s. Houghton Library, Harvard University

Important precursors to the modernist short story include the works of Wilde, Hardy, and Conrad. These authors exemplify a number of crucial developments in the genre at the turn of the century. Wilde was a key figure in fin-de-siècle England, parlaying aestheticism into fiction that seems on the surface merely witty and sophisticated but that, on closer examination, has something significant to say about the relationship between reality and art and about the artifice of human psychology and behavior. Wilde’s story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (1891) is the tale of a wealthy and delicate young man on the eve of his wedding who learns through a palm reader that he will murder someone. Horrified, he postpones his wedding and decides to preempt the inevitable by killing one of his relatives. What seems at first to be a grim tale of murder and corruption becomes instead a witty reflection on performance, on blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction, as Wilde satirizes the attitude that anything can be rendered into an aesthetic experience, including duty and murder.

The relationship between truth and fiction is a primary concern in modernist literature. A grimmer reflection on the relationship between truth and fiction and on the ways art can function as a trap is Hardy’s story “On the Western Circuit” (1891). Here, an illiterate servant girl becomes pregnant by a young law clerk moving from London through the countryside on one of his periodic rounds to hear cases. They begin a correspondence, but unbeknownst to him the girl’s sensitive and beautiful letters are composed and written by her employer, who herself falls desperately in love with the man. When the deception is revealed on the day he marries the servant girl, he realizes that through the letters he has fallen in love with the mistress and trapped himself in a marriage that can only ruin him. The story is an excellent example of Hardy’s preoccupation with inexorable forces like lust and fate that trap individuals. In its frank treatment of sexuality, as well as its interest in the nature of texts and interpretation and the seductive quality of language, Hardy’s story shows much affinity with later modernist stories.

Conrad shares Wilde’s and Hardy’s concentration on psychology; his texts also exemplify a 20th-century concern with the consequences of empire and postcolonial modes of inquiry. His novella Heart of Darkness works through this concentration on psychology and subjectivity by employing a variety of experimental narrative techniques, namely, an unreliable narrator and an impressionistic representation of events. Conrad rejects a stable perspective and a linear narrative to tell the story of Marlow and his trip into the Congo to find Kurtz, an ivory trader rumored to have gone insane in the jungle. The story, told from Marlow’s point of view, is always unstable; one is never sure where one is or what one knows, just as Marlow is unsure. The reader is forced to piece information together from impressions, from clues, mirroring Marlow’s knowledge gathering as he travels into the unknown.

The emphasis on the processes of subjectivity and the narrative techniques that arise from this preoccupation in modernist short fiction are exemplified in the work of Joyce, Mansfield, and Woolf. Joyce’s stories in Dubliners are famous for their use of the epiphany, a moment of being or feeling in which the character comes to a realization. These stories are also notable for their lack of resolution, for the seeming failure of the plot to resolve itself. For instance, “Araby” and “Eveline” both focus on a moment of realization on the part of the main character, only to show that such a realization does ends not in clarity or resolution but in further paralysis. Joyce’s use of stylistic experimentation is notable as well, as stories are told not only from the point of view of the boy or of Eveline but also in the individual voice, a striking use of free indirect discourse. Mansfield, too, in such stories as “Je ne parle pas français” and “Bliss,” refuses to offer resolution to the inner conflicts of the characters. Furthermore, she focalizes her narratives through the perspectives of her characters only to show how little they know and understand not only others but also themselves. For Mansfield’s characters, their own subjectivity remains a mystery.

Mansfield’s stories also share with those of other modernist writers, like Lawrence, a concern with the representation of sexuality and desire and their relationship to alienation and isolation. For these authors, and for many modernist writers, desire does not bring two people together but rather provides a moment to show how there can be no true connection. Mansfield’s story “Bliss” and Lawrence’s story “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” illustrate the modernist impulse to address sexuality, gender, and desire while also showing how it contributes to isolation and how it forms a most unknowable part of the human psyche.

Further exploration into the processes of subjectivity and their relationship to time and space can be seen in Woolf’s fiction. Her story “Kew Gardens” begins with an image of the flowers in the gardens, their shifting colors serving as a symbol for the shifting perspectives of the people walking along the paths. The story is told from several points of view, different people thinking their own thoughts or having their own conversations as they walk. The moments are meant to be seen as occurring simultaneously, a moment in time when an experience is focalized through many subjectivities. The story ends with a return to the symbol of the flower, a moment of movement and of stasis. The short fiction of the period relies heavily on symbols such as this one; in “Bliss” Mansfield uses a pear tree to signify the female protagonist’s burgeoning sexuality, and Lawrence uses animal symbolism extensively to similar purpose in his work, including stories such as “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.“

This intersection between symbolism and psychological realism, the importance of narrative experimentation, and the shared themes discussed are key characteristics of modernist short fiction. The modernist period, by all accounts, was a moment of great artistry in the genre.

Childs, Peter. Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Flora, Joseph, ed. The English Short Story, 1880–1945: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Hanson, Clare. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880–1980. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.
Head, Dominic. The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Morrisson, Mark. The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.
Orel, Harold. The Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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