Evolution of the Three Types of Short Story

The aforementioned three types do not offer any indication of the way the short story has developed, being rather an x-ray or cross-section of styles as they presently cluster themselves. Throughout the history of the short story, styles, schools and of course individual writers have moved from one type to another. Rather than each type evolving in some orderly linearity, the chronological narrative of how they came about resembles more a tangled bolus of influences. In the century between the publications of Hoffman's The Sandman in 1815 and Kafka's Metamorphosis in 1915, the short story traversed an enormous period of development, taking in arguably every potential shape. This is not to say, however, that form has peaked - this period of development is over 100 years ago - rather the framework for how it could work was laid down; the full application of those ideas, those structural seeds are still far ahead of us. Likewise the genres that were born with the short story - horror, detective fiction and sci-fi - now seem dormant. Yet, it is Comma's belief that the potential of the short remains precisely because the short's genres and its formal inventions so rarely crossed paths. Charles E. May in The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice talks of the cyclical movement - throughout the form's history - between its use of folkloric, mythic or allegorical story elements and realism, noting certain junctures in the history of this tension. (Note: allegory here is defined not just by its folkloric origin but as a story in which characters don't change or develop but merely stand for things.) It is worth looking at this potted history, for in amongst May's realism-allegory junctures are moments as equally important in the development of the three types. May picks out Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' (1835) as one such juncture; being the story of a dreamlike journey into a wood at night, the story has many of the mythic and allegorical qualities that define a fairytale, and yet at the end of it Goodman Brown emerges with an all-changing perspective on the reality of his town and kinsmen.

From a structural perspective, however, this story is less momentous: it has a curious double-revelation ending, owing to its story-within-a-story shape - the revelation of where everyone in the wood was heading, resounding even louder in the real-world awakening. But this story is more important, structurally for what it offered as a tool, to later epical narratives; the dream sequence offering a host of ingenious devices for delivering the surprise ending (devices that are still being invented today). It's worth noting, however that the dream-trick of Ambrose Bierce's 'Owl Creek Bridge' is more of a closed, external discovery (being a discovery of the reader about the actual external circumstances of the protagonist, delivered through internal devices), whilst Goodman Brown is an internal discovery (of an almost modernist style) through equally internal means. Already the complexity of the 3-types, as viewed through chronological means, is emerging. In the key stories of the 19th century other central themes emerge; the notion of the short as a place to confide, for instance, even if it is a confession only to oneself. The short story, being brief, is better able to mirror the act of a single utterance than a novel and, being confined by its own brevity, acquires a sense of darkness and silence around it. As such it becomes the perfect chamber for private counsel, or self-confession, in ways that the modern novel has outrgrown. Many stories in Comma's first 'new author' anthology, Bracket, celebrate this lonely voice: a deaf girl in Zoe Lambert's 'Ramshackle' has a solitary but almost uninterrupted private conversation through her mobile phone, whilst in Sara Heitlinger's 'Black Box', the protagonist uses an Activity Diary she has to keep since acquiring a heart monitor, as a diary, and an addressee.

These are just intuitive flashes, appearing in the work of very young contemporary writers, that demonstrate this modern role for the short story, as a confessional; a role much more clearly exhibited in the private conversations of the great stories of the 19th century, that helped redefine it: conversations between the strange visitor and the eponymous Signalman in Dickens' classic, between the captain and his stowaway in Conrad's 'Secret Sharer', between Iona Potapov and his horse in Chekhov's 'Misery', or between the speaker and his mysterious employee in Melville's pivotal story 'Bartleby the Scrivener' (1853).

In all cases the dialogue is to some extent a conversation with the protagonist's own conscience, i.e. with themselves. Literally in some cases, effectively in others. As well as germinating a host of proto-modernist ideas (c.f. The Reality of Artifice), Bartleby is a great example of how one type of story could easily be seen as another. The driving mystery that so grips the reader and the speaker alike, the question of 'who' Bartleby is (and why he has become who he is) is seemingly provided (if in part) in the story's epilogue. We appear to have a revelation story - an epical end-story with a traditional, climactic exposition. Yet what we actually get in the epilogue is another irresolvable image - of Bartleby as a dead-letter clerk - complementing and echoing the two haunting images that have already coallesced: of him quietly making a home of the office at night, and of him sat in a prison garden, wasted away and surrounded by oppressive, Egyptian style masonry. But each new image of him leaves him more mysterious, not less; he remains sphynx-like, irresolvable.

It also bears out another key motif of the short story as we know it today: namely the ability of a central character to remain, if necessary, almost completely anonymous (an idea taken to its logical extreme by Borges, when he made his protagonist and only character anonymous - in 'The Waiting'). 

Modernism in short fiction wasn't brought about by any one writer of course; Joyce claims to have never read Chekhov before he wrote The Dubliners, rather as Newton never read Leibniz in the year they simultaneously discovered calculus. But Bartleby could easily be offered up as the first (accidental) hero of modernism, in that the epiphanic realisation at the end applies not just to the speaker's view of one man, but outwards, indefinitely to all men, and therefore an internal, epiphanic truth: 'Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!' Indeed Bartleby does even more than this, it takes the story on two steps, not just one. From seeming traditional epical (with its epilogue 'explanation') into the internal revelation of the modernist story, and even further into the lyric. The layering of images - through Bartleby's Cordelia-like silence - delivers us arguably the first ever Lyrical short story.