Identity in the Short Story
'What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?' (James 1987: 196–7). Henry James' question is particularly pressing for the short story since, despite the production of character studies such as James Lasdun's 'An Anxious Man' (2005) or Katherine Mansfield's 'The Stranger' (1921), the form is not necessarily suited to character development. As Edith Wharton has noted:
Some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic
rendering of a situation … Type, general character, may be set forth in a few
strokes, but the progression, the unfolding of personality … this slow but
continuous growth requires space, and therefore belongs by definition to a
larger, a symphonic plan. (Wharton 1997: 37)
Character, to use V. S. Pritchett's metaphor, is to be glimpsed from the corner of the eye or, as both L. A. G. Strong and R. K. Narayan suggest, to be glanced at as if through a window. Although the use of incidents such as an epiphany or single effect are often thought of as when character is most fully revealed, epiphanies are frequently deflated so that the protagonist's self-revelation is drained of significance. Gabriel Conroy, at the end of James Joyce's 'The Dead' (1914), remains as self-deluded as he ever was. Modernist short stories tend towards an ambiguous and paradoxical view of the self, in which psychological portraits such as Joyce's 'Clay' tend towards the static quality of the sketch.
As Wharton suggests in her essay, the short story's depiction of character as type relates the form to the classical epic. In The Theory of the Novel (1920), Georg Lukács contrasts the novel, where the 'inner action … is nothing but a struggle against the power of time'