Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Paratactic Structure in the Canterbury Tales: Two Antecedents of the Modern Short Story

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Paratactic Structure in the Canterbury Tales: Two Antecedents of the Modern Short Story

Article excerpt

Although the first theories about the short story originate with Poe' s "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), historically the first forms of the genre go back to the emergence of the medieval tale. Some scholars acknowledge in passing that the medieval tale lies at the origins of the short story, yet very few critics have explored these connections further. As W.S. Perm aptly remarks:

Historically, the earliest genre of the story ... is the tale .... The description of the tale as a genre of the story is only a beginning; yet, as long as we are able to describe the genre, structure, enunciative and narrative postures, mode and tropical convention, the beginning is a valid one.1

This is an old, complex controversy2 whose full elucidation lies beyond the scope of the present study, which takes Penn's affirmation as a point of departure and attempts to demonstrate that the examination of medieval tales offers interesting approximations to the study of the modern short story. At present only a few studies have considered the relationship between the short story and the medieval tale, and even then they have done so only briefly.3 This study aims to fill the gap in the literature in this field.

Especially interesting for our purposes are those medieval tales that deliberately fuse the popular oral tradition (in which moral trials and individuals' triumphs over desire are predominant) with the literary tradition (which attempts to capture the world's unique, inexplicable or mysterious aspects). Destined to become one of the most successful and surprising genres of the twentieth century, and predictably one of the predominant artistic forms of the twenty-first, the short narrative underwent several developmental phases before emerging as a new genre in the nineteenth century. The short story is indebted to the medieval literary tale, which represents one of the most fruitful phases of its evolution.

This essay argues that some of the Canterbury Tales announce the ulterior evolution of the modern short story. It focuses on Chaucer's new narrative techniques, which center on the manipulation of the most important narrative elements, such as time, space, characters, narrators, and endings that prefigure the dynamics of the modern short story and modify the final meaning of the tale.

Critics have regarded the fourteenth century as the culminating moment of collections of "popular tales",4 which had existed for more than three thousand years. Translations and adaptations of collections of oriental and classical stories were popularized by Christian preachers and flourished in the works of authors such as Boccaccio, Chaucer and Gower. Scholars commonly agree on the division of these collections into three main groups according to their organizing structure: unframed tales, tales with an introduction and tales with a fully developed frame.5

The first group consists of unframed tales - loose stories without any kind of organizational criteria. Probably the most famous collection of unframed tales is the Gesta Romanorum (towards the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth), a compilation of more than 1 80 stories, all of which end with a moral exemplification. There is no link among these stories, and in some cases there even seems to be no correspondence between the story and its moral.

The second group comprises tales with an introduction. These are collections of unrelated tales preceded by an introduction or a prologue that instructs the reader as to the content and the aims envisaged by their publication. Miracles and the lives of saints generally belong to this category. A good example is the South English Legendary, compiled during the late thirteenth century, or the Aesopets, a collection of animal fables, compiled during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Tales with a fully developed frame form the third group. Preceded by an introduction, these tales show explicit links to each other that are meant to give an overall meaning to the story. …

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