The Short Story: An Introduction

By Paul March-Russell | Go to book overview

10
The Short Story Cycle

As the previous chapter argued, modernist writers were drawn to the meaninglessness of contemporary existence in order to give it a tentative significance in the form of art. This response meant that the strategies of linear narrative and authorial omniscience, key components to Victorian novels such as George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871), were discarded for forms that were partial, open-ended and fleeting. For, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay 'Modern Novels' (1919):

Is it not possible that the accent falls a little differently, that the moment of
importance came before or after, that, if one were free and could set down
what one chose, there would be no plot, little probability, and a vague general
confusion in which the clear-cut features of the tragic, the comic, the passion-
ate, and the lyrical were dissolved beyond the possibility of separate recogni-
tion? (Woolf 1988: 33)

Yet, modernist writers stopped short of absolute dissolution, an aesthetic of scattering and fragmentation associated with the avant-garde (see Chapter 17). Following in the wake of precise stylists such as Gustave Flaubert and Anton Chekhov, modernists such as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway sought methods of capturing the many points of view that constitute an objective reality without either dissolving the text altogether or subsuming these multiple perspectives within the homogenising tendency of the realist novel. Instead, they found a solution in the use of interlinked short stories, described variously by critics as a 'cycle', 'sequence' or 'composite novel'. Since the highpoint of modernism, the form has proved remarkably popular, considering the low sales of short story books, while blurring the boundary between what constitutes a short story collection and a novel.

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