The Art of the Short Story

The Art of the Short Story , edited by Dana Goia and R.S. Gwynn contains one or more stories by fifty-two different authors. Each author’s section is followed by a section called author’s perspective that includes some reflections by the writer on the craft of writing. The back of the book has an extensive glossary, discussion on the elements of fiction and approaches to criticism. This is a book that will scare your reluctant reader because of it’s—even in paperback—massive size. I had started reading this book some time before I chose to finish it for graduate work, so yes, I did read the entire thing. The collection was refreshingly diverse in style and author background. In trying to decide what to write about, knowing that I should only choose a couple of stories to focus on, I first went through and circled all the stories listed in the index that moved me. You know, the kind of story that leaves you awed and inspired, a little tug behind your navel suggesting, this is it, this is it, this is what it’s all about. There were twelve. I’m going to write about two here, because I think that there are some similarities between them that make them a good pair. “The Story of An Hour” by Kate Chopin and “The Swimmer” by John Cheever both use irony and symbolism to invite the reader into the experience of the story and characterize their protagonists.
Cheever’s Neddy outwardly seems uninhibited and happy from the very first scene where he “slid down the banister that morning and [gave] the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack.” And from there we see him inspired with this idea of swimming across the county from backyard pool to backyard pool, and he is delighted with himself for thinking of it. Thus he swims from the Grahams to the Hammers to the Lears, and on and on, a seeming never ending journey from house to house. At first, he slides in easy and is welcomed, seems so at ease wherever he goes, even taking off his trunks and swimming nude in the Hallorans pool, because that’s how they did it. As Neddy swims closer to his house, there are increasing indications that under this surface delight, there is a powerful disorder, and we are not shocked, but not entirely expecting either when at the end of the story we find him standing in front of an empty house to stare at his own delusions. Chopin use this technique as well when she sets us up in the first line for a protagonist about to be crushed by the news of her husbands death, “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the new of her husband’s death.” The story is nearly over before we get her true reaction of “Free! Body and soul free!” The story ends with yet another irony, the surprise of finding out that the fact that her husband is alive, not dead like the first line suggested, is the thing that puts her life in danger and in fact, kills her.
Chopin and Cheever use symbolism throughout to lead us to their ironic endings. Chopin uses the imagery of the sky our of the open window, the window itself, and the flight of the bird, to represent the opening up of Mrs. Mallard’s inner life and her desire for freedom. Cheever uses river symbolism in an interesting way here in that his main character makes his own river, even naming it, in his swim through the county. We know that the river symbolizes life and choice and direction, and are immediately cued into the fact that this protagonist is embarking on a quest. So, we have to ask ourselves, where will it lead? The houses he visits, all families, all named—and there are so many—symbolize the possibilities for family life. When in the end, we find that for him there is no longer any possibility, we are sorry for him, we’ve seen so many varied possibilities. As he gets closer to home, the families he visits seem to know his story, give hints to the reality that his wife left and something is wrong with his daughters, and as this begins to happen, the weather, that has so far been as pleasant as he has been delighted, begins to sour, symbolizing what he must face in the end.
So, how can I take this thing that I noticed in these two stories and apply it to my own work? In cultivating an appreciation for surprise, for playing on reader expectation, on using imagery to compliment larger themes in the story. I’m left with these questions to ask myself about my own writing: Do the images in the scene all contribute to something larger? Are there places where going against expectation would be more effective?


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