The Short Story: An Introduction

By Paul March-Russell | Go to book overview

3
Memory, Modernity and
Orality

Riddles, hoaxes and conundrums pretend to be what they are not. This pretence not only characterises the enigmatic quality to be found in much short fiction but it also links the short story with its antecedent, the folktale. As the mystery deepens, so the narrative grows more layered and ambiguous. Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter' (1844), for example, develops from an initial pastiche of Gothic romance into a moral quest. This tendency within short fiction for the narrative to become less transparent relates the form to the morphological quality of the folktale, which is to say, while there are fundamental characteristics to any genre, the rest of the narrative form operates in a flux. As Chapter 1 concluded, the folktale is mutable and open-ended. The enigma and dissimulation associated with the riddle and related forms extend this sense of mutability inherent to storytelling into print fiction.

'The Storyteller' (1936), by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, is one of the most profound meditations upon storytelling and its relationship to social change. Benjamin's essay is inspired by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, but it is effectively an elegy to a number of writers, among them J. P. Hebel, Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe, whose work Benjamin feels 'most resembles the ancient oral forms' (Greaney 2002: 17). For Benjamin, the art of storytelling is dying out because the communicability of authentic experience is itself diminishing: 'a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing' (Benjamin 1992: 86). According to Benjamin, the communication of wisdom learnt through experience could only be passed on from one generation to the next in closely knit communities.

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