Essay: How the form of a short story conveys greater issues

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  • How the form of a short story conveys greater issues
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‘Short stories want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space’ (Richard Ford, 2007). Discuss how the form of the short story focusses on and elucidates a major issue, with illustration from, and analysis of, at least two short stories we have read or listened to on the module.

The following essay will discuss the short story form based on Ford’s idea that short stories want to use a small amount of time and text, to convey greater issues. By considering the short story form in detail, how it works and how that relates to different texts, the concept of elucidating major issues through smaller ones can be thoroughly investigated.

In the journal Short fiction in theory and practice, Ursula Hurley states that ‘Short fiction gives us glimpses and fragments of fictional realities’ (Hurley, 2011). This suggests that the short story form offers a small insight into the realities of the stories, but that there is a much larger reality, a ‘major issue’ hidden behind the ‘glimpses and fragments’, that the reader must unravel.

This can be seen in Paule Marshall’s ‘To Da-duh in Memoriam’ (Baldwin and Quinn, 2007) as she explores the form of the short story through various small events that take place in the text. These small events act as symbols for the bigger events and issues in the story. For example, the narrator visits her grandmother, ‘Da-duh’ in Barbados, who tries to teach her about her heritage, whilst the narrator defends her home. Her grandmother often repeats phrases such as ‘I know you don’t have anything like these in New York’ (Baldwin and Quinn, 2007, 478) when showing her the luxuries that the island has to offer, which begins to create a conflict between them as the narrator defends the place she is from, proving to her grandmother that New York does also have some luxuries that Barbados does not. The conflict shown in the short story between the narrator and her grandmother as they explore the island, and compare the places they are from, acts as a smaller symbol for the larger conflict between the places they discuss, and the heritage of the young girl.

Evelyn Hawthorne in the journal ‘Ethnicity and Cultural Perspectives in Paule Marshall’s Short Fiction’ (Hawthorne, 1986), implies that ‘the identity conflict of the Caribbean-American, as of other immigrants with a dual heritage, is an important issue which Marshall was one of the first to explore’ (Hawthorne, 1986, 45). This ‘identity conflict’ is portrayed through the young girl in the short story, who also has a dual heritage, her Caribbean heritage that her grandmother wants to teach her about, and her American heritage, which she tries to defend. As previously discussed, this larger conflict between the heritages can be seen through the conflict of the grandmother and the young girl. However, the specific dual Caribbean-American heritage conflict can be seen through the young girl herself and her thoughts, throughout the story.

For instance, as the young girl travels past the sugar canes in Barbados, she claims they are ‘too much’ for her, and that she thought of them as ‘giant weeds that had overrun the island, leaving scarcely room for the small tottering houses’ (Baldwin and Quinn, 2007, 477). This reflects the beginning of the major issue in the story, the heritage conflict, as the young girl feels uneasy about the luxuries of the Caribbean island, seeing them as ‘giant weeds’ and instead worries about the lack of room for the houses because of them, emphasising her differing attitudes towards her heritage. As her grandmother repeatedly reminds her that these luxuries are not available to her in New York, the young girl realises that ‘(her) world did seem suddenly lacking’ (Baldwin and Quinn, 2007, 478). This realisation reflects the young girl’s transition from her American heritage, to the exploration of her Caribbean heritage as the luxuries her grandmother is showing her, ultimately make her world, and life in America seem ‘lacking’, as if a part of her heritage needs to be discovered.

Shortly after the young girl leaves to go back to New York, her grandmother passes away, and she ends her narration by describing her adult life living in a loft as she ‘painted seas of sugar-cane […] while the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath (her) easel, mocking (her) efforts’ (Baldwin and Quinn, 2007, 482). The contrast shown here in the last line of the story reflects the major issue that has been present throughout, the conflict between the young girl’s Caribbean and American heritage, since she has learned the value of her Caribbean heritage, as she describes her painting of ‘seas of sugar-cane’ rather than as ‘giant weeds’ as she described them before. Although, she states that the machinery in the factory below jars the floor and ‘mocks her efforts’ as she tries to paint. There is a sense of irony here as earlier in the story, her grandmother explains to her how the sugar canes are taken from the island, over to America and sugar is made from these canes through machines in factories. This is perhaps why the narrator claims the machinery is ‘mocking’ her as she tries to paint the sugar canes, as it shows a conflict again in her heritage between the painting of the Caribbean sugar canes and the American factory machinery below. However, the combination of the two to end the narration also creates a sense of concord for the young girl as her Caribbean-American heritage can be explored together. Through the character of the young girl and her differing descriptions of New York and Barbados, the reader is able to investigate the short story in a much larger depth, to be able to unravel the major issue in the story, in this case, the ‘identity conflict’ for people with dual heritage.

In his short story ‘The Sacrificial Egg’ (Halpern, 1986) Chinua Achebe also explores the form of the short story through the character of ‘Julius Obi’. As the protagonist in the story, the narrator follows Obi’s life through the town of Umuru, beginning with him staring out at the empty market, Nkwo, then explaining how he had come to live in the town that Kitikpa had now taken over, and ending with him staring at the market again, considering how he had enraged Kitikpa, the week before. Here Achebe uses a small event, the daily life of one man, to convey the major issue, the ‘incarnate power of smallpox’ (Halpern, 1986, 2). The market that Obi stares at, is part of a village that has been damaged due to rapid urbanisation, and as there is now no one caring for the village, the change has allowed for an outbreak of smallpox.

Achebe further uses the form of the short story to condense the information he puts across, as at the beginning of the story the narrator claims that the market, Nkwo, had spilled over into other markets ‘with the coming of civilization’ but was ‘still busiest on its original Nkwo day’ (Halpern, 1986, 1). In the opening of the story, the reader is already able to understand that the market Nkwo has been affected by colonisation as the town has grown through the big palm-oil port, although the market is still busy on its original day, which also reflects the tradition of the town. This shows that through the description of the markets and the change in the town, Achebe is able to elucidate a major issue between tradition and colonisation, using smaller events, and in a short space.

Alain Séverac in his section of the text Telling stories (Bardolph, Viola and Durix, 2001) suggests that there are elements of intertextuality in the writings of Achebe, specifically in some of his short stories that connect to his text No Longer at Ease, in which the protagonist is also named ‘Obi’. He states ‘It is as though the short stories narrated episodes of Obi’s life that needn’t or couldn’t be integrated into No Longer at Ease’ (Bardolph, Viola and Durix, 2001, 242). This further implies that the short story offers more information in small amounts of space and time as it is suggested that the short stories give information that could not be integrated into a larger text, showing that the stories themselves are part of a bigger issue in larger fiction, without taking into account the major issues in each individual story.

As Hunter states in The Cambridge introduction to the short story in English (Hunter, 2007), some cultures only have a small, and sometimes non-existent infrastructure for publishing and thus ‘low-circulation literary magazines […] for reasons of space and means of production, invariably favour the short story over longer forms of fiction’ (Hunter, 2007, 138). This reflects how the short story is often favourable over longer fiction as it allows for less space, which with regards to these cultures with lack of publishing means is advantageous, but which also allows authors to use a smaller amount of space than that used in novels to put across larger messages, that could not be conveyed through literary forms such as poetry. This can be seen through the intertextuality suggested in Achebe’s works as the short story form is used to put across and add to a larger message, which cannot simply be achieved in large fiction, but has to be conveyed through various short stories.

To conclude, both Paule Marshall and Chinua Achebe explore the form of the short story in multiple ways in their respective texts. When considering Ford’s idea, both texts give the reader a large amount of information in a short amount of time, as well as elucidating major issues in each. ‘To Da-duh in Memoriam’ (Baldwin and Quinn, 2007) more specifically draws on these major issues through a much smaller plot, giving the author the opportunity to give the reader more information in a smaller space. Through the narration of a young girl visiting her grandmother, Marshall is able to explore the idea of an identity conflict in people with dual heritage, of which she was one of the first to explore. This major issue is explored widely in a small amount of time and space, mainly through the conflicting ideas the young girl has about her ‘home’ and her grandmother’s ‘home’, which each represent part of her heritage. Achebe is also able to draw on major issues such as urbanisation, colonisation, and the outbreak of smallpox, all through the daily life of one character, and his actions. The intertextuality suggested by Bardolph, Viola and Durix, also emphasises the idea that the short story is able to do ‘something big’ in a small amount of space and time, as ‘The Sacrificial Egg’ (Halpern, 1986), it is suggested is a small narration of a character from one of Achebe’s longer fictions, thus showing that the short story is able to add to longer fictions, as well as drawing on major issues itself.

Bibliography
• Baldwin, D. and Quinn, P. (2007). An anthology of colonial and postcolonial short fiction. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning, pp.475-482.
• Halpern, D. (1986). The Penguin book of International short stories. London: Penguin.
• Hawthorne, E. (1986). Ethnicity and Cultural Perspectives in Paule Marshall’s Short Fiction. MELUS, [online] 13(3/4), pp.37-48. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/467180 [Accessed 7 May 2016].
• Hunter, A. (2007). The Cambridge introduction to the short story in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.138.
• Hurley, U. (2011). Look back in wonder: how the endings of short stories can be their most powerful and effective distinguishing features. Short fiction in theory and practice, [online] 1(1), pp.25-35. Available at: http://dx.doi.org.lcproxy.shu.ac.uk/10.1386/fict.1.1.25_1 [Accessed 7 May 2016].
• Bardolph, J. Viola, A and Durix, J. (2001). Telling Stories. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Word Count: 1956 words

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