Tuesday, May 31, 2016

John Barth, "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction"--Short Story Month 2016-Day 31

            In 1967 and 1968 Barth aligned himself with the postmodernist focus on self-reflexive fiction with two decisive steps.  First he published a controversial essay in the Atlantic entitled "The Literature of Exhaustion," which, although it has been misunderstood to have claimed that contemporary fiction writers have "run out" of a subject for their work, actually urged more of the kind of self-conscious narrative experimentation being practiced by the South American writer Jorge Luis Borges. 
            Secondly, he published Lost in the Funhouse, an experimental collection of short stories in which fiction refused to focus its attention on its so-called proper subject--the external world--and instead continually turned the reader's attention back to what Barth considered fiction's real subject--the process of fiction-making itself.  All of Barth's fictional works published since Lost in the Funhouse were similarly focused on their own narrative structure and methods.
            "Autobiography" is one of the most thoroughgoing self-reflexive fictions in Lost in the Funhouse, for it does not pretend, as conventional fictions do, that the voice that speaks the fiction is the voice of a human being; rather it confronts directly the inescapable fact that what speaks to us is the story itself; thus, the only autobiography a story can present is a story of its own coming into being and its own mode of existence.  Once we accept this fact, the rest of this story follows logically. 
            Every statement in the story is a assertion, in one way or another, about this particular fiction's fictionality, whose mother was a mere fictional device of self-reflexivity which the father/author was attracted to one day.   Some of the key characteristics of fiction in general that the story foregrounds are:  fictions have no life unless they are read; fictions cannot know themselves; fictions have no body; fictions have one-track minds; fictions can neither start themselves nor stop themselves; fictions reflect their authors in distorted ways.
            Barth insists that the prosaic in fiction is only there to be transformed into fabulation.  For Barth, the artist's ostensible subject is not the main point; rather it is only an excuse or raw material for focussing on the nature of the fiction-making process. 
            Great literature, says Barth, is almost always, regardless of what it seems to be about, about itself.  Perhaps more than any other American writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, John Barth made fiction intensely conscious of itself, aware of its traditions, and of the conventions that make it possible.  If, as the main currents of modern thought suggest, reality itself is the result of fiction-making processes, then John Barth is truly a writer concerned with the essential nature of what is real.

Thanks for Reading:  Hope you had a good Short Story Month this year and had the chance to read lots of short stories.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Henry James, "The Real Thing"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 30

            James's "The Real Thing" is an important fictional treatment of the tension between reality and artistic technique.  The artist in the story pays so much attention to the social stereotype his models represent that he is unable to penetrate to the human reality beneath the surface.  
            As James makes clear in his preface to the story, what he is interested in is the pattern or form of the work--its ability to transcend mere narrative and communicate something illustrative, something conceptual:  "I must be very clear as to what is in this idea and what I wish to get out of it. . . .  It must be an idea--it can't be a 'story' in the vulgar sense of the word.  It must be a picture; it must illustrate something. . . something of the real essence of the subject." 
            Although James's artist in the story insists that he cherishes "human accidents" and that what he hates most is being ridden by a type, the irony James explores is that the only way an artist can communicate character is to create a patterned picture that illustrates something; there is no such thing as a "human accident" in a story. 
            As James argues in "The Art of Fiction," a work of art is not a copy of life, but far different, "a personal, a direct impression of life."  James says the supreme virtue of a work of fiction is "the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life."  The emphasis for James is on "impression" and "illusion"--both of which create and derive from artistic form and pattern.
            "The Real Thing" is constructed on a series of ambiguous antinomies:  the real versus appearance; the real versus the representative; the real versus the unreal; the real versus the ideal; morality versus aesthetics; perfection versus imperfection; pride versus humility; interpretation versus imitation; the It-Thou versus the I-It. 
            Our definition of what is "real" in the story constantly shifts.  At first, the Monarchs seem to be the real thing; then we think that the real thing can only be the created thing; finally, we see that the Monarchs are the real thing after all.   If the artist's task is to perceive and reveal the real thing, which may lie beneath the surface of the apparent thing, then the painter in this story fails to be an artist, as he himself recognizes when he says he should liked to have been able to paint the glance on Mrs. Monarch's face.
             However, the very fact that by his telling of the story called "The Real Thing" the narrator is able to penetrate to the real character of the Monarchs is an indication of his development as an artist. 

Tomorrow: John Barth's "Autobiography"

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Frank Stockton, "The Lady or the Tiger"—Short Story Month—Day 29

Ostensibly "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, that is, the only kind of justice possible in fiction--poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional alternative endings of comedy or tragedy--marriage or death. 
The fact that this particular story "ends" before it ends, giving the reader the freedom to choose a conclusion, is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice enacted.  Stockton urges readers to close the story not by choosing what they want to come out of the doors, but rather in the way readers always achieve closure--by looking back at the plot, the tone, and the thematic motifs to determine the story's thematic "end." 
Since the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady-like and tigerish, what readers ae really asked to decide is which aspect of the princess dominates at the end--her lady side or her tiger side.  Because the presentation of what goes on the princess' mind makes quite clear which side that is, the reader is not so free to choose as it first appears.             
An interesting film version of this story in the Short Story Showcase Series distributed by Encyclopaedia Britannica places the story in a modern setting and relies heavily on montage to structure the events  The film manages to capture the satiric intent of the story and to suggest the numerous ironies in the story, most of which focus on the concept of pure justice as being that which is uncontaminated by human knowledge or choice. 
The story is most interesting, however, for its focus on the reader's need for closure.  For even though the story leaves little doubt that the tiger pounces out at the end (for the princess has more tiger in her personality than lady), most readers feel somehow tricked or cheated that the author leaves the final choice ostensibly open.

Tomorrow: Henry James's "The Real Thing"

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 28

            Although this story was published in 1917, it gained new attention after the rise in interest in issues of women's rights in university classes.  However, the story may also be worth studying for the manner in which it illustrates the basic elements of the reading process and the nature of the short story form.  The conventions Glaspell uses are from the detective story.  The crime has been committed prior to the beginning of the story; what is left to be done is to investigate and lay bare the mystery by revealing the perpetrator and the motive for the crime.  However, "A Jury of Her Peers" combines detective story conventions with courtroom drama conventions, for as the investigation proceeds, the "jury" examines the evidence and pronounces a judgment at the end.
            In order to understand the mystery that lies at the heart of the story--the motive for the particular way the crime has been committed--the investigators require two things:  a sympathetic understanding of the characters and situation and the ability to discover clues. It is clear that the men investigators do not have such an understanding, but that the women do.  The men go upstairs to investigate what they consider to be the "scene of the crime," while the women stay downstairs to take care of "trifles," which turn out to be clues.  A clue may be defined as a detail that is relevant, that "makes a difference" or that "means" something within the overall plot. 
            As the story proceeds, the women, based on their identification with the accused, discover details--the spilled sugar, the awkward stitches in the quilt, the empty bird cage--that they determine to be clues.  The men, on the other hand, think these are merely trifles.  This difference between meaningless details and meaningful ones is an important distinction for the short story form, especially in the twentieth century.  Since Chekhov and Joyce, the short story derives meaning from the transformation of seemingly trivial details into meaninful details because of the role they play in the contextual mystery of motivation.
            The quilt and the bird cage are the most telling clues, for the bird cage not only points to a specific motive for the way the husband was killed, but it is also a symbolic clue, that is, it is symbolically identified with the wife: "she was kind of like a bird herself."  The image of the bird in a cage, who has the life squeezed out of it by the brutality of the man, dictates, at least in terms of poetic justice, that the man must be killed the same way.  The quilt takes on a similar symbolic importance, for its many pieces from different points of Minnie's life make it a composite history.  It also refers to the process of determining clues and putting them together in meaningful ways;  as the county attorney says, "let's go upstairs again and go over it, piece by piece."   
            The attorney makes the problem explicitly clear near the end of the story.  "If there was some definite thing--something to show.  Something to make a story about.  A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it."  And this indeed is the problem the reader always faces--how to look at all the details, determine which are relevant and which are not, and then rearrange them in a new meaningful way so that the motive for the mystery can be laid bare. 
            A tight, well-done film version of this story was produced and directed by Sally Heckel in 1980.  The film opens with still shots of the exterior of the house which look like oil paintings of the bleak landscape.  After the body is discovered, as is usual in the detective convention, the investigation begins as the credits roll.  Interior shots are mostly dark as if to suggest not only the closed-in nature of the lives lived there, but also the mystery embodied inside the house.  Throughout the film, as the men condescend to the "ladies," the women begin to uncover the clues and the sheriff's wife, who at first is said to be "married to the law," gradually disassociates herself from the letter of the law to affirm its spirit.  The two women become co-conspirators in the crime, as well as a jury of the accused woman's peers, who, by hiding evidence, pronounce her innocent.

Tomorrow: Frank Stockton's "Lady or the Tig

Friday, May 27, 2016

Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes the Memorious"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 27

            Jorge Luis Borges might well be called a writer's writer, for the subject of his stories is more often the nature of writing itself than actual events in the world.  By the same token, Borges should be seen as a metaphysical writer, for his stories most often focus on the fantastic paradoxes that ensnare those who think.  Because of Borges' overriding interest in aesthetic and metaphysical reality, his stories often resemble fables or essays.
            One of his best-known essay/stories, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," deals with a French writer who decides to write Don Quixote, in spite of the fact that it has already been written by Cervantes. Borges then compares the two versions and finds them identical; however, he argues that the second version is richer, more ambitious, and in many ways more subtle than Cervantes' original.  In another well-known story, "Funes the Memorious," Borges presents a character who is unable to forget details of his experience, no matter how small.
            If the situations of these two men seem alien to ordinary human experience, it is because Borges is interested in the extraordinary nature of metaphysical rather than physical reality. The fact that Pierre Menard can rewrite the Quixote identical to the original, yet create a more complex and subtle work can be attributed to the notion that one reads a present work with all previous works inscribed within it. 
            The fact that Funes is condemned to remember every single detail of his experience means that he can never tell stories because he is unable to abstract from his experience.  Funes knows that to tell the story of his life would not be a story at all, but an exact recounting of every event and every nuance of every event.  Thus, by the time of his death he would have barely finished classifying the memories of his childhood.  What the story suggests is the fact that absolute reality in all its specific detail is unlivable:  "The truth is that we all live by leaving behind."
            Borges is also particularly interested in human reality as being the result of language and game, as well as the result of the projection of the mind itself.  "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" explores the intellectual productions of an imaginary planet; "The Library of Babel" deals with a library that is infinite in its circular and cyclical structure; "The Lottery in Babylon" deals with a lottery which transforms all reality itself into chance.
            Borges' most common technique is to take previously established genres such as the science fiction story, the detective story, or the philosophical essay, and then to parody those forms by pushing them to absurd extremes.  Thus, most of Borges' fictions are puzzling, frustrating, sometimes shocking, often humorous, but always profoundly thought-provoking.  "Funes, the Memorious" is, in a way, a justification for the fantastic nature of his art, for, as Funes's experience shows, absolute reality is intolerable and inhuman.  Only the fantastic is real.

Tomorrow: Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers"

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Grace Paley, "A Conversation with My Father"--Short Story Month 2016—Day 26

            In an interview, Grace Paley said this story is about story telling, generational attitudes, and history.  She says the father in the story is right, from his point of view, for he came from a world where there was no choice, where you couldn't change careers when you were forty-one years old.  Paley has said that the father in the story is patterned after her own father.
            What Paley rebels against in this story is the inevitability of plot, which, because it moves toward a predestined end, is a straight line between two points.  A basic difference between fiction and "real life," Paley suggests is that whereas real life is open and full of possibility, fiction moves relentlessly toward its predetermined end.
            Consequently, as much as the writer might like his or her fiction to be "like life," it can never quite be a similitude of life.  The closest the writer comes to feeling this sense of similitude is when fictional characters are so fully realized that they seem to take on a life of their own and somehow "get away" from their authors.
            After the author tells her second story, the character of the mother does seem to "come alive" both for the author and the father, for whereas the father feels sorry for her as if she were a real person in the real world, the author feels that she has the freedom to do something other than she does in the story. 
            A basic difference between the father's reaction to the woman in the story and the author's reaction is that whereas the father takes her situation seriously, as if she had a separate existence in the world, the author knows that the woman is her own creation; thus, although she feels sorry for her, she never loses sight of the fact that as the author she has the god-like power to alter her destiny. 
            The basic implication of this difference is that whereas the reader can become involved with fictional characters within the predetermined pattern of the plots in which they live, the author necessarily takes a more distanced approach to his or her characters and thus is more apt to see them satirically than tragically.

 Jorge Luis Borges' "Funes the Memorious"

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Robert Coover, "The Brother"--Short Story Month 2016—Day 25

            In Bernard Malamud's novel God's Grace, a modern rewriting of the biblical flood story, the hero, when asked where stories come from, says, "from other stories."  Robert Coover's first collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants, from which "The Brother" is taken, consists of a number of stories based on other stories--fairy tales, legends, folktales--all of which are made more earthy and "real" than their mythic originals. 
            What may have given Coover the idea for this story is the line in Genesis, "This is the story of Noah" and the restrained and objective Hebraic style of the biblical story of cataclysm.  For "The Brother" is the story of Noah's brother, told by him in a folksy, working-man fashion.  Whereas Noah is less than human in his single-minded dedication to following God's command, the brother is just an ordinary guy who loves his wife and tries to support his family.  Whereas God fills the life of Noah, the deity is merely part of the everyday language of the brother.
            Coover's treatment of the conflict between the sacred and the profane is thus quite different from Herbert Gold's "Susanna at the Beach."  There is something sympathetic and real about the voice we hear in this story, certainly nothing of the corruption suggested in the biblical story that made God destroy everyone except Noah and his wife and children.
             The scene in which the brother and his wife drink wine and laugh at Noah's foolishness is, rather than a harsh Hebraic criticism of the earthly, a modern celebration of the real and the earthy.  As a result, when the brother is turned away from the ark by Noah and finds his wife drowned, our reaction is quite different than our reaction to the biblical story may be.       
            Although Noah follows the "letter" of God's command that he should take only his sons and their wives with him on the ark, his refusal to follow the "spirit" of brotherhood and save his brother and his pregnant wife suggests intolerable self-righteousness.  What Coover has done is transform the abstraction of what Genesis calls corrupt humanity into the ordinarily human.  As a result, instead of rejoicing that such men as Noah, the one blameless man of his time, survived the flood, we may regret that such men as his brother did not. 

Tomorrow: Grace Paley's "Conversation with My Father"

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Donald Barthelme, "The Balloon"-- Short Story Month 2016—Day 24

            Ever since Donald Barthelme's first story appeared in The New Yorker in 1963 and his first collection of stories (Come Back, Dr. Caligari) appeared in 1964, his short fiction was both much complained about and much imitated. Critics complained that Barthelme's work was without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without concern for the reader's understanding. These very characteristics, of course, placed Barthelme with such writers as Robert Coover, William H. Gass, Ronald Sukenick Raymond Federman, John Hawkes, and John Barth on the leading edge of so-called "postmodernist fiction." 
            The term "postmodernist" is difficult to define.  Most critics, however, seem to agree that if "modernism" in the early part of the century manifested a reaction against nineteenth century bourgeois realism i(n which writers such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, frustrated conventional expectations about the cause-and-effect nature of plot and the "as-if-real" nature of character), then postmodernism pushes this movement even further so that contemporary fiction is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes. 
            According to the basic paradigm that underlies this movement--grounded on European phenomenology and structuralism and further developed in psychology, anthropology, and sociology--"everyday reality" itself is the result of a fiction-making process whereby new data are selectively accepted and metaphorically mutated to fit preexisting schemas and categories. One critical implication of this theory is that literary fictions constitute a highly concentrated and accessible analogue of the means by which people create that diffuse and invisible reality that they take for granted as the everyday.
            To study fiction then is to study the processes by which reality itself is created.  The primary effect of this mode of thought on contemporary fiction is that the story has a tendency to loosen its illusion of reality to explore the reality of its illusion. Rather than presenting itself "as if" it were real-a mimetic mirroring of external reality-postmodernist fiction makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The underlying assumption is that the forms of art are explainable by the laws of art; literary language is not a proxy for something else, but rather an object of study itself. William H. Gass notes that the fiction writer now better understands his medium; he is "ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows, more often now, that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is master--language." 
            The short story as a genre has always been more likely to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up.  Fictional self-consciousness in the short story does not allow the reader to maintain the comfortable assumption that what is depicted is real; instead, the reader is made uncomfortably aware that the only reality is the process of depiction itself--the language act of the fiction-making process. 
            Readers schooled in the realistic tradition of the nineteenth-century novel found Donald Barthelme tough reading indeed. For Barthelme, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes.  The problem of words, Barthelme realizes, is that so much contemporary language is used up, has become trash, dreck.  Barthelme takes as his primary task the recycling of language, making metaphor out of the castoffs of technological culture. For Barthelme, as for the poet always, the task is to try to reach, through metaphor and the defamiliarization that results, that ineffable realm of knowledge which Barthelme  says lies somewhere between mathematics and religion "in which what may fairly be called truth exists." 
            It is the extreme means by which Barthelme attempts to reach this truth that makes his fiction so difficult.  Barthelme has noted that if photography forced painters to reinvent painting, then films have forced fiction writers to reinvent fiction. Since films tell a realistic narrative so well, the fiction writer must develop a new principle. Collage, says Barthelme, is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century. The point of collage, he notes, is that "unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other realities from which it came, and may also be much else.  It's an itself, if it's successful."  One of the implications of this collage process is a radical shift from the usual temporal, cause-and-effect process of fiction to the more spatial and metaphoric process of poetry.
             The most basic example of Barthelme's use of this mode is "The Balloon," the premise of which is that a large balloon has encompassed the city. The persona of the story says that it is wrong to speak of "situations, implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension." In this story there are no situations, only the balloon, a concrete particular thing that people react to and try to explain.  Although we discover at the end that the balloon is the objectification of something personal to the speaker, we realize that because the speaker's feelings must be objectified in images and language, it is removed from life and cut free of meaning.  The participant or viewer then becomes an artist who constructs or manipulates whatever responses the balloon elicits.  The balloon is an extended metaphor for the Barthelme story itself, to which people try to find some means of access and which creates varied critical responses and opinions. 
            The fiction of Donald Barthelme required a major readjustment for readers who came to it accustomed to the leisurely linear story line of the traditional novel or the conventional short story. To plunge into a Barthelme story is to immerse oneself in the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, for his stories are not so much plotted tales as they are parodies and satires based on the public junk and commercial media hype that clutter up and cover over our private lives. Because they are satires, many of the stories are based not on the lives of individuals but on the means by which that abstraction called society or the public is manipulated. Consequently, some of Barthelme's pieces insist that the reader have a background knowledge of contemporary philosophic thought (albeit philosophic thought that has become cheapened by public chat), while others are based on popular culture. 
            Barthelme is not really interested in the personal lives of his characters; in fact, few seem to have personal lives. Rather, he wishes to present modern men and women as the products of the media and the language that surround them. Furthermore, he is not so much interested in art that serves merely to reflect or imitate the world outside itself as he is concerned to create art works which are interesting in and for themselves.
            The basic fictional issue overshadowing the work of Donald Barthelme is this: If reality is itself a process of fictional creation by metaphor-making man, then the modern writer who wishes to write about reality can truthfully only write about that very process.  To write only about this process, however, is to run the risk of dealing with language on a level that leaves the reader gasping for something tangible and real, even if that reality is only an illusion.

Tomorrow: Robert Coover's "The Brother"

Monday, May 23, 2016

Julio Cortázar, "The Island at Noon"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 23

             As is usually the case with fables, the focus here is on the illustration of an idea rather than on the exploration of character.  The idea may have developed from Cortázar's perception of an inchoate longing to escape a crowded plane to the small island in the sea below; making the source of that desire an airline steward allows him to emphasize the need to escape repetitive activity and makes possible for him to underscore the increasing obsessiveness of the longing. 
            The central statement in the story that comes closest to expressing directly the idea that Cortázar wishes to explore here is:  "None of it made any sense--flying three times a week at noon over Xiros was as unreal as dreaming three times a week that he was flying over Xiros."  The story exploits the notion of the meaninglessness of repetitive reality and the increasing significance of desire.  Whereas the protagonist cannot keep account of actuality, for everything is "blurred and easy and stupid," when he looks out the window at the island, it is sharply delineated, the nets clearly sketched on the sand. 
            As the story progresses, the fantasy out the window becomes more real than the reality inside the plane.  However, as in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the transition from reality to fantasy is rendered ambiguous.  It takes place when, "with his lips against the window, he smiled, thinking that he would climb to the green spot, that he would enter the sea of the northern coves naked, that he would fish for octopuses with the men, communicating through signs and laughter."  Because his thoughts of actualizing his desires are rendered in such detail, the reader is lead to believe that he has physically gone to the island.
            When Marini reaches the green spot in his imagination, he hears the hum of the engine of the plane.  The question the reader may ask here is:  where is Marini at this particular point--in the plane or at the green spot on the island?  The final scene becomes even more ambiguous.  On the one hand, the reader may assume that the real Marini falls to his death in the sea with the plane crash.  However, since the only way the reader knows about the plane crash is by means of the fantasy that Marini is having while looking out the window, then the plane crash itself is not real, for Marini is imagining it also.  The reader's ultimate realization may be that there is no reality in a story except the reality of fantasy.

Tomorrow: Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon"

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Sharer"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 22

            Making the psychological theme of the double plausible is the central problem in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," for the protagonist's double is not only projected outside him, but also is dramatized in the story as an external self who has been involved in a crime apart from the protagonist and whose crime is at the core of the moral issue facing him.  The story itself is split between the plot, which focuses on the stranger and the captain's efforts to protect and conceal him, and the mind of the captain who obsessively persists on perceiving and describing the stranger Leggatt as his other self, his double.  
            The story also depends on metaphorical details which suggest that Leggatt has been summoned forth from the captain's unconscious as an aspect of the self with which he must deal.  Although it can be said that Leggatt represents some aspect of the captain's personality that he must integrate--instinctive behavior rather than the Hamlet-like uncertainty he experiences on his first command--it is more probable that he is brought on board to make explicit and dramatically concrete the dual workings of the captain's mind which distract him and tear him apart.  This creation of an "as-if" real character to embody what are essentially psychic processes marks the impressionistic extension of the trend that began the short story form during the romantic period.
            The basic issues the story deals with are the following:   what does it mean to be a stranger to yourself?  What does it mean to see yourself in another?  What does "being in command" mean?  What does it mean to be your brother's keeper?  What does the notion of talking to oneself suggest?  Why does having a secret self split the self?  The very fact that the captain refers over and over to Leggatt as his secret sharer suggests Legatt's precarious hold on his position as a real person in the real world.  Note his use of "as if" in "as if our experiences were identical" and  "as if you expected me."
            "The Secret Sharer" can be read in any one of several different ways.  On the one hand, it follows the conventions of an adventure story at sea.  It can also be read as a story of initiation in which the captain must meet the challenge of command and move from insecurity to confidence in his own ability.  It can be discussed as a story of moral conflict in which the captain must make a decision between identifying with the individual or with the rules made by society.  Finally, of course, it can be read as a story of psychological projection in which Leggatt represents some aspect of the captain's own personality that must be dealt with.  There is no real conflict between these various interpretations, for all of them are interrelated; Leggatt is both outside the captain and inside him at the same time.
            A short film adaptation of the story, starring David Soul as the captain, deals competently with the ambiguity of Legatt's status in the world.  On the one hand, Legatt is indeed a real person in the real world in the film.  However, several scenes in the film suggest his duality with the captain.  First of all he rises up out of the sea directly below the captain's face, as if he were Narcissus.  Then he is initially identified with the captain by close-up shots of their hands:  first a shot of the captain's hand at the beginning suggesting his shaky hold on command; then a shot of Legatt's hand gripping the rail as he comes on board; a shot of the hands of both the captain and Legatt clasped together as they say goodbye; finally, another close-up of the captain's hand on the ship's rail at the end, indicating that he now has a firm grip on command and his own sense of identity.

            Since most of the two-shots of the captain and Legatt take place below-decks, the natural overhead light on the tops of their heads as they put their heads together over a map emphasizes their physical similarity.  Moreover, the fact that most of the dialogue between the two men takes place in whispers suggests the notion of a man talking to himself.

Tomorrow: Julio Cortezar's "The Island at Noon"

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Wakefield"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 21

             "Wakefield" begins with an account of an actual event as reported in a newspaper or magazine. Because the story makes the narrator feel a sense of wonder and sympathetic identification, he thinks it deserves thinking about, suggesting that the reader may make up his or her own story to account for the event or else follow along with the story he makes up.  The basic problem of inventing a story about a man who left his wife for twenty years with no explanation is of course to provide an explanation; motivation is the key issue in this story.
            However, to provide a realistic explanation, such as the man left to be with another woman or because he could not stand living with his wife--explanations which might easily be understood--is to write a slice-of-life story of everyday reality.  Hawthorne, however, is drawn to the story precisely because of its disruption of everyday reality.  The first task for Hawthorne the storyteller is to invent a character for Wakefield that might lay the groundwork for such an act.  What Hawthorne imagines is a character who does not think things out, does not sympathetically identify with others, is self-centered, and is prone to crafty, self-serving behavior.  Of course, Hawthorne reasons backward from the known act to arrive at these traits, creating a mind-set that would account for an act that has no discernible purpose.
            After establishing character motivation, Hawthorne invites the reader to imagine with him Wakefield's carrying out the mysterious act.  To serve as an emblem of Wakefield's own personality and mysterious motivation, Hawthorne creates Wakefield's crafty parting smile and imagines it imprinted on Mrs. Wakefield's mind during the next twenty years. 
            Hawthorne imagines that although Wakefield must have taken this "singular step with the consciousness of a purpose," he cannot "define it sufficiently for his own contemplation."  Hawthorne's own explanation of the act, typical of allegory, is general rather than specific.  He is interested in events with a universal meaning, not events that can be accounted for realistically.  Thus, he imagines the reason for Wakefield's initial act is vanity, the perverse need to create a reaction, to focus attention on the self--paradoxically to assert himself by absenting himself. 
            However, it is not only Wakefield's initiating act that must be accounted for, but also his inability or refusal to break out of the act.  Hawthorne says that if he were writing a long book, he might be able to explain how an influence beyond human control "lays its strong hand on every deed which we do, and weaves its consequences into an iron tissue of necessity."  However, since he is writing only a short "article," he simply asserts that Wakefield becomes frozen in his own gesture.
            Just as there is no meaningful explanation for Wakefield's leaving and remaining gone for so long, there is no conclusive reason for his return.  When he does go home, it is for no other reason than that a shower "chances" to fall.  Hawthorne says that the moral is that it is dangerous to step aside for fear of losing one's place in life forever.  However, "Wakefield" is more interesting for its illustration of the way Hawthorne transforms a mere event into a meaningful story.

Tomorrow: Conrad's "The Secret Sharer"

Friday, May 20, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown" Short Story Month 2016—Day 20

            Although "Young Goodman Brown" is usually discussed as an allegory in which a young man is initiated into the nature of evil, such an approach often slights two important problems.  First, there is the problem of the relationship between realism and allegory in the story.  On the one hand, it seems as though it is predestined that Goodman Brown enter the forest; on the other hand, he questions the journey and acts as if he could struggle against it.  In the first instance, Goodman Brown is an allegorical character who has no free will to act in any way other than what the allegorical nature of the story determines for him.
             In the second case, the story makes use of the realistic convention that the character is an as-if-real character with a mind of his own.  Because there is no way to separate these two seemingly incompatible character qualities in the story, it may be that "Young Goodman Brown" marks a point in the history of the development of short fiction in which fabulistic conventions are beginning to be displaced by realistic ones.
            The second problem the story raises has to do with the nature of evil, and the related concepts of guilt and sin, for the story never makes it quite what sin or evil is.  We are certainly not expected to believe that all the people in the village are in league with the devil, that is, totally evil, as that metaphor implies.  Instead, sin in this story must have a more basic, more generalized, meaning.  The fact that Brown only has to make this journey once and that he has not made it before suggests that it is a ritualistic journey that all human beings have to make at a certain point in their lives.   
            If we are to take "Young Goodman Brown" as a story about the discovery of evil on its most basic level, then it might be well to compare it to that archetypal story of the discovery of evil in the book of Genesis in the Bible.  Erich Fromm, in his study The Art of Loving, makes helpful suggestions about how to understand the Garden of Eden story.  The first effect of Adam and Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit is that they look at each other and are ashamed.  Fromm says we are not to understand this as the birth of sexual prudery, but rather that the shame has a deeper meaning.  The eating of the apple marks the separation of one entity into two separate entities, who must henceforth be condemned to loneliness and isolation.  This is the nature of sin that Goodman Brown must discover.
            According to the Christian religion, of which Goodman Brown is a member, the only way to heal this separation is to follow the words of Jesus to love the neighbor as the self.  However, as Fromm reminds us, this does not suggest a narrow egotism, but rather that we love the neighbor until we can make no distinction between the neighbor and the self.
            Before his journey into the forest, Goodman Brown simply assumed the sense of union, as children do.  However, the journey into the forest is a metaphor for his discovery that separation is the nature of humanity.  Having made this discovery, human beings have only two choices:  either they can accept the truth of separation and try to love the other as a means to heal it, or else they fall into complete despair and hopelessness.  In "Young Goodman Brown," the wife Faith is able to make the leap of faith of the former; Goodman Brown, however, cannot; thus he goes to his grave an emblem of isolation and despair.

Tomorrow: Hawthorne's "Wakefield"

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Herman Melville, "Bartleby" Short Story Month 2016-Day 19

When I was teaching, my students often had trouble with "Bartleby" because they could not understand why Bartleby acted the way he did; they also were not sure why the narrator didn't throw him out immediately.  So, I always tried to tackle these two problems of motivation at the beginning. 
The story is difficult because it marks a transition between fabulistic stories, in which characters are two-dimensional representations, and realistic stories, in which they are presented "as-if" they were real.  As a result, Bartleby seems to be a fabulistic character, while the narrator seems realistic.  
There is no way Bartleby can answer the question, "what is the matter with you?" because Bartleby has no "matter"; that is, he can only react as a two-dimensional representation of passive rebellion. In Hamlet the Queen says to Polonius, "More matter, less art." But Polonius is no more "matter" than Hamlet, who is a "poor player" who cannot "act" because the only thing he can do is "act."
 The one place in Melville's story when Bartleby comes closest to answering the question about what motivates him is when he has decided to do no more copying at all and the narrator asks him why.  Bartleby, standing looking out the window at the blank wall, says, "Can you not see the reason for yourself?" 
The narrator, an "as-if-real" character thinks there is something wrong with Bartleby's eyes.  Bartleby, a two-dimensional figure, is referring to the metaphoric representation of his problem--the blank wall.  However, it makes no sense to tell an "as-if-real" person that the reason one has decided to do nothing is because of a wall.  
To do so is to be accused of madness (as Bartleby indeed has been accused of), for it means to mistake a mere object in the world (the wall) for what one has taken the object to mean (meaninglessness, nothingness, blankness, loneliness, isolation).  As Polonius tells the Queen: "Your noble son is mad: Mad call I it, for to define true madness, What is't but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go."
Although the narrator cannot identify with Bartleby's metaphoric mistake, he feels the power of Bartleby's loneliness and need.  He knows that the only cure for Bartleby's isolation is brotherly love, but he is unable to grant that love on Bartleby's terms--that is, that he completely lose himself, give up everything.  For the metaphoric character, it is all or nothing at all; the "as-if-real" character, however, feels he must exist in the practical world. 
Melville's story is ambiguous and mysterious because, like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," it is both fabulistic and realistic at once.  The wall is a "dead letter" for Bartleby because it signifies "nothing," and "nothing" is that which he cannot bear.  Bartleby is a "dead letter" for the narrator, because, although he has intuitions about who or what Bartleby is, he cannot "go all the way" into that realm of madness, the metaphoric, and the sacred that Bartleby inhabits; he can only tell the story over and over, each time trying to understand

Tomorrow: Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown".

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

John Cheever, "The Swimmer" Short Story Month 2016-Day 18

 Two of John Cheever's best known early stories, "Torch Song" and "The Enormous Radio," are outright fantasies.  Later stories, such as "O Youth and Beauty" and "The Country Husband," are more realistic treatments of middle-aged men trying to hold on to youth and some meaningful place in life.  "The Swimmer" combines this typical realistic Cheever theme with his penchant for the fantastic.             
The basic problem in reading "The Swimmer" is determining the nature of the reality of the events at any given point in the story.  As suggested by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "Man-Made versus. Natural Cycles:  What Really Happens in `The Swimmer`." Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990):  415-18), the reader must decide if the first part is fantasy, as Neddy thinks of earlier and happier times, or if the last part is a fantasy that Neddy projects of his future as he waits in the gazebo for the storm to pass
Clues to the time distortion are: the tree that is losing its leaves in summer; Neddy's wondering if his memory is failing him; the references to misfortunes he seems to know nothing about; his lose of weight that makes his trunks feel loose; his increasing sense of fatigue and age.  This story is a reversal in some ways of Ambrose Bierce's experimentation with the distortion of time in his famous "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  
Whereas in Bierce's story, a short period of "real time" seems to be unnaturally lengthened, in Cheever's fantasy, a long period of "real time" seems unnaturally foreshortened.  Clues are given to this distortion in both stories, because in Bierce's story the central character must be convinced that what he thinks is happening is "really happening," whereas in Cheever's story the central character must be allowed to believe that his metaphoric swim through future or past time (depending on your perspective) is actually a swim in present time through space.
The metaphoric nature of the swim is suggested at various points in the story.  For example the idea that he is an explorer, a legendary figure, prepares the reader for the tragic nature of his experience; the fact that he thinks of the pool as a river suggests the conventional fabulistic metaphor of "the river of life"; and the fact that near the end of the story he feels he has been "immersed too long" suggests a basic flaw in his character for which his fantasy experience is a symbolic embodiment.
An interesting full-length film version of this story was released in 1968.  Directed by Frank Perry and starring Burt Lancaster as Neddy, the film represents an effort rare among Hollywood films to remain true to the ambiguous dream/reality status of the original story.  Although the film necessarily invents additional scenes--the most cliched being a series of corny and predictable scenes between Lancaster and a young girl who once was a baby-sitter for his children--for the most part the film does an excellent job of presenting Neddy's movement through space as actually a movement through time. 
The basic difference between the story and the film is that whereas Cheever's original story has a dream-like fable nature, Perry's film focuses more on the character of Neddy as a man who, although growing older and wishing to hang on to young, has neglected his family and allowed his life to pass him by.  The final scene when, tired and worn, he hammers on the door of his deserted house, is shocking and powerful, even tragic. 
A brief footnote: In one of the scenes where Neddy stops at a pool party, John Cheever can be seen in a bit part walk-on.

Tomorrow:  Melville's "Bartleby"

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ambrose Bierce, "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" Short Story Month 2016-Day 17

            Partially because the short story as a form has for a long time been underrated by American critics, Ambrose Bierce's work has not, at least until recently, been subject to serious critical analysis, in spite of the fact that his best-known story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is one of the most-frequently anthologized stories in American literature.  Early critics primarily dismissed him as a second-rate follower of Poe and a mechanical writer who manipulated fictional puppets for terrifying effect.  However, in the past twenty-five years, several book-length studies of Bierce's fiction have appeared, which may suggest that both the short story and Bierce's particular brand of romantic fiction are at last being understood and appreciated.
            Purely a story of technique; the "content" of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a pretext for a game Bierce plays with the conventions of narrative endings.  The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end"--death.  However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an elaborate bit of fiction-making that the reader initially takes to be actuality. 
            The story is made up of three sections which correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action.  But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves.  The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, like a still picture, highly formalized and stiff.  At the end of Part I, the teller provides the reader with a clue to the manipulation of time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make:  "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant.  The sergeant stepped aside."          
            The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction--the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless, he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told or read one after another.  It is this purely rhetorical nature of discourse that motivates or makes possible the final fantastic section of the story.
            The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I, purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event, of a bit of exposition that tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament.  The reader sits patiently through this formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III--which does not happen except in the flash (which can only be told in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind.            
            It is thus only because of the time-bound nature of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality.  At the conclusion of the story, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense: "Peyton Farquhar was dead."  At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would be no story.

Tomorrow: John Cheever's "The Swimmer"

Monday, May 16, 2016

Charlotte Gilman, "The Yellow Wall-Paper"--Short Story Month 2016-Day 16

            The story makes use of a common convention of  the gothic romance.  It opens with the typical hereditary estate, which the narrator is tempted to call a "haunted house," and then introduces the convention, best known in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre," of the mysterious mad woman in the upstairs room.  However, the primary convention the story uses is the traditional difference between how men and women supposedly approach reality.  The husband, who is a doctor or scientist, has no patience with faith, superstition, or anything that cannot be physically verified and converted to mathematical figures.  This contrasts with the wife's imaginative power and her "habit of story-making." 
            Serving as a background to this tension is the wall-paper itself which gives the story its title--an image of domestic "woman's things," but which takes on significance because of the nature of the "patterns" that it embodies.  If  you isolate all those references to the wallpaper in the story, you will see how the patterns begin to take on an ominous expression of reality. The nature of the woman's "madness" is projective and thus identified with the nature of writing, for she creates meaningful patterns and then responds to the patterns as if the meaning existed in them instead of being projected on them. 
            Although this may be at least one definition of madness, it is also a definition of the artist, who creates meaning out of patterns that readers take to be real and significant.  The difference between madness and art, of course, is between allowing the projection to possess one only temporarily or being drawn into it obsessively without the desire or ability to escape. 
            What the narrator does is to transform a "pointless pattern" into a meaningful one by following it to its conclusion or end and thus determining its purpose.  The narrator says she knows little of the principal of design, but that she does know that there is no law or rule that governs the pattern of the wallpaper.  Of course, as the story proceeds and she perceives or projects a woman behind the pattern, the reader knows that inevitability the woman must be herself, for the conventional rule that applies here is that if one projects a pattern, the pattern then indeed reflects the self.  The story thus involves two basic notions of patterns that the reader may need to unravel--patterns created by society itself that entrap a woman and bind her and patterns the mind of the woman herself creates that follow only the law of her own psychic distress. 
            A 1982 film version of this story invents a number of elements to present the story as a male/female conflict in which the male is responsible for the madness of the female.  For example, there is the difference between what the wife writes--her impressions and personal thoughts in a small notebook she keeps hidden in her pocket--and what the husband writes--a schedule that controls her every move and an academic paper.  Thus, the story is about the woman's external life dominated by her husband's schedule and her inner life captured by her own notebook, which her husband wishes to deny her.  In one scene the husband explains that he wants things solid, wants to get at the "reality of things"; he says, for example, that once pollination was explained to him, the mystery of love vanished.              
            A number of other inventions, such as a mysterious young girl who occasionally rides through the landscape outside the house on a bicycle, suggest the possibilities of the wife when she was a young girl herself, possibilities that have been closed off by the patterns that control her.  Throughout the film, the dialogue emphasizes the husband's view that the wife thinks too much, that her imagination is her worst enemy. He argues that to be healthy she must be "calm and pink"; for him the essence of woman is body not mind; as a doctor friend of the husband says to her, "You must put on flesh."
            The woman realizes that she seems to be living in a world of her own, but that the more it becomes her own the less control she has over it.  Indeed, her inner world becomes externalized.  At the end of the film, the conflict between the man and woman is made most explicit by a montage of shots that cut back and forth between the man reading his paper at a professional meeting and the woman tearing off the paper from her walls. What the woman wishes is to expose what lies behind the patterns, to destroy the patterns themselves, and to free the woman who is entrapped there.  The climactic scene occurs when a hand comes out of the wall and a mysterious woman in a yellow dress kisses her and the two become one. 

Tomorrow: Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

Sunday, May 15, 2016

David Leavitt, "Gravity""—Short Story Month 2016-Day 15

            David Leavitt's first collection of stories, Family Dancing, published when he was twenty-three years old, consisted of nine stories that mostly dealt with the tensions that strain the delicate fabric of family relationships--sex, divorce, illness, death.  A central tension is that of a young gay male trying to come to terms with his homosexuality or trying to find acceptance within his family. 
            In  A Place I've Never Been, Leavitt's second collection, eight of the ten stories focus on conflicts arising out of the gay lifestyle; but Leavitt's homosexual characters, both male and female, in this new book have pushed beyond the problem of psychological self-acceptance or social acceptance by others; they now either confront the further implications of living with their sexual orientation or else they deal with homosexual versions of the problems that face the heterosexual mainstream.
            "Gravity," because of its lyrical and symbolic quality, isone of the most intense of the stories that deal with homosexuality. By implication, we may assume that Theo is a young homosexual with AIDS who has chosen to take a drug that would save his sight rather than one that would keep him alive. However, because he is dying again, he comes to live with his mother.  On a shopping trip to buy an engagement gift for a cousin, 
            Theo's mother chooses an expensive crystal bowl; while examining it, she literally tosses it through the air to her feeble son.  The fact that the bowl is so heavy and yet so fragile, combined with the fact that the son is able to catch it and hold on to it, constitutes a symbolic moment that provides both the mother and the son with a small but sustaining victory.
            However, there are earlier images of the relationship between the two in the story.  The image of the small boy in his mother's glasses suggests seeing through her eyes.  His identification with the mother is also alluded to when he asks if would be all right to give a gift and the mother says "you already have," meaning that she has bought the gift for him.  
          Because of these references to their relationship, the trajectory of the tossed bowl somehow emphasizes the firm yet fragile connection between them.  Although there is no way to defeat the law of gravity, for it is the law that roots us to body and ultimately to death, there are gestures such as the tossing of the bowl that momentarily seem to defy gravity and thus assert the human ability to defy death.
             All of Leavitt's stories deal with universal human themes of self-discovery, divided allegiances, and the search for acceptance.  It is just that in the fictional world of David Leavitt such universal needs and conflicts primarily derive from the biological, personal, and social reality of homosexuality.

Tomorrow: Charlotte Gilman's "Yellow Wallpaper"

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Carson McCullers, "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud""—Short Story Month 2016-Day 14

Paul Engles, editor of the O'Henry Award Anthology when this story was selected for inclusion in 1942, said he considered "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" "the most perfect short story in American Literature."  Although this may sound somewhat extreme for such a seemingly slight little narrative, there is something classic about the basic character configuration and theme of the story. 
The enclosed situation of the cafe in the early morning, the confrontation between the young initiate and the experienced one; the cynical and ironic observer, the silent chorus of men in the background--all this suggest a paradigmatic short story situation.  Moreover, the story's focus on loneliness and the difficulty of loving fits with Frank O'Connor's famous definition of the short story in The Lonely Voice.
The narrative situation of the story is simple; what needs to be understood is the notion of love that it presents.  Some readers may be as cynical as the cafe owner Leo in their reactions to the notion of loving a tree, a rock, a cloud.  McCullers provides a suggestion about what she means by love in her essay, "The Flowering Dream:  Notes on Writing' in The Mortgaged Heart.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1941:  "How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being?  He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage."
If we ask why it is easier to love a tree, a rock, a cloud than it is to love a person, the answer must be that love is indeed synonymous with identification with the other.  The aim of love is to dissolve that which separates us and to swallow up the other.  This is difficult with a person because the other is a subjective consciousness who wishes to maintain self identity.
  However, as the transient tells the puzzled boy, one can gradually learn to identify with the other if one begins simply with the less threatening.  This story is about that primitive sense of the sacred that constitutes true reality, the basic religious yearning of human consciousness to lose the self in the other.  Leo knows the transient is right, but he also knows that such a demand is impossible for the ordinary human; the boy, of course, has yet to learn this hard fact of human reality.

Tomorrow: David Leavit's "Gravity"

Friday, May 13, 2016

William Faulkner, "A Rose For Emily"—Short Story Month 2016-Day 13

Part of the reason for the widespread popularity of this story is that its gothic elements make it horrifying enough to be appealing to the popular imagination.  Part of the reason for its widespread appearance in short-story anthologies is that it seems so representative of typical Faulkner themes and techniques, especially his theme of the decay of the South, and his experimentation with point of view and narrative time. 
A great deal of criticism has been written about the story, dealing with a variety of thematic issues and technical approaches.  The most common critical concern is the relationship between the theme of Emily's denial of time and Faulkner's technique of breaking up the linearity of time in the telling of the story.  Because the story is not told in a linear fashion, readers sometimes get confused about the proper order of events; thus determining the sequence of the story has occupied a number of critics.  Most agree that the basic arrangement is:  Emily's father dies; Homer arrives that summer; Homer deserts Emily; Emily buys the poison; the smell must be dealt with; twenty years later, Emily gives China lessons; ten years after that the property tax issue comes up; ten more years after that, Emily dies at age 74.  
To determine the question of when Emily lay down with the corpse, the only clue is the strand of iron-gray hair.  Although we have no way of knowing if she lay with the decaying corpse before her hair turned gray, we do know that her hair started turning gray six months after the smell developed and that in the next few years it turned the iron-gray that it remained until her death. 
The story is about the denial of time as a linear series of events, both in the action of Emily's trying to deny death and in Faulkner's refusal to lay out the story in a linear fashion.  The central passage occurs near the end when the narrator describes the old men who come to the funeral who confuse "time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but instead a huge meadow. . . ."  
This spatialization of time is central to the story, for Emily is not so much a real person as she is an icon, symbolic of an abstraction, a sign frozen in time and space.  The clue to her iconic status is that she looks bloated like a body long submerged in motionless water or else frozen into an idol in the window, a sort of "hereditary obligation upon the town. . . . Dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse."   The use of the plural narrator, a kind of choral voice of the town, supplements this notion of time as spatial and Emily as icon, for we do not get the sense of one voice recounting an event laid out neatly in linear time.
Emily's iconic status is what makes the film version of this story strange and problematical.  The thirty-minute film, which stars Angelica Huston as Emily, makes Emily real and particular rather than symbolic and general as she is in the written story.  However, perhaps because the director could not ignore the absurdity of the events if portrayed as if they involve real people, presents the action in a grotesquely comic way.  And indeed, when we think about it, this tone seems appropriate.  Although some critics describe Emily as a tragic figure, the situation is absurdly comic at the same time. 
In the film, for example, when Emily's father dies of a stroke while eating, he falls down with his face in his food; when they finally break in and carry him away against Emily's wishes, he is stiff in his chair and the flies buzz about him.  Later, in a scene when we see Emily and Homer about to make love, the camera cuts to a jack-o-lantern, whose comic/horrific face stars back at us.  In the final shot of the film, Homer's mummified corpse seems also to stare back with the same grotesque grin.  
There is indeed something absurdly comic about Emily's story rather than darkly tragic, just as there may be something comic about the South's efforts to hang on to things that are long dead.  Southern American gothic fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Truman Capote,  Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams, has always had an element of black comedy.

Tomorrow:Carson McCullers, "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud"