The Short Story: An Introduction

By Paul March-Russell | Go to book overview
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2
Riddles, Hoaxes and
Conundrums

The art-tale, which prospered throughout the nineteenth century, was an important bridge between the folktale and the short story. Its immediate and accessible form allowed writers to comment upon the attitudes and organisation of modern society. The role of magic, in particular, gave writers the opportunity of imagining different kinds of relationship, especially different ways of feeling and perceiving reality. If earlier fairy tales tended to be one-dimensional, for example the moral didacticism of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, then the art-tale tended to be multi-layered and ambiguous. Washington Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle' (1819), for instance, can be read either as a demand not to sleep through one's life, as Rip does, and thereby miss the chance of personal and political freedom, or as a critique of the post-revolutionary settlement, in which Rip's laziness embodies a spirit of individualism that contrasts with the political fervour and crowd mentality of the new Republic. Either response can be supported by a reading of the text, an interpretative split which is precipitated by the draught that sends Rip into his twenty-year sleep, and which argues for the new American democracy to be composed of disputatious voices rather than a monotone.

The ambiguity of the art-tale, though, echoes a much earlier form of wordplay: the riddle. The interruption of lifelike scenarios by magical or uncanny events, for example in the stories of Nikolai Gogol and J. P. Hebel, casts the reader's recognition into doubt. Readers are presented with an intriguing puzzle so that the art-tale can be regarded as a riddle concealed within a narrative. Riddle stories were widespread throughout the nineteenth century. Two very popular examples in America were Thomas Bailey Aldrich's 'Marjorie Daw' (1873) and Frank R. Stockton's 'The Lady, or the Tiger' (1882). Both stories deliberately withhold information; in Stockton's case, he suspends the

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