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Implicitness in American Short Stories -(Oxford Collection, Joyce Carol Oates selection) by Myriam M. Mercader.

Abstract

This work studies a selection of Joyce Carol Oates’ anthology The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. The aim is to analyse the grade of implicitness present in American short stories throughout the last three centuries. Grice’s Relevance Theory and Bonheim’s Narrative Modes and Techniques of the Short Story have been taken as framework for the research.

 The meaning of a piece of literature is more than often not an obvious matter. It may lie hidden entwined in the characters thoughts for the reader to detect or it may be just awareness on part of the reader at a certain moment in the story, many times at the very end. This study focuses on these hidden elements that affect intrinsic meaning, what linguists call “implicatures”.  

Implicitness in Short American Narrative

Introduction

On analysing Joyce Carol Oates’ The Oxford Book of American Short Stories as the base for our study we encounter an outstanding selection of some of the best and paradoxically least known American short stories. It was indeed, the author’s intention to gather them in a collection, finding unfair that many such an interesting story should remain practically unknown to the general public. Joyce Carol Oates acknowledges having chosen the stories bearing in mind storytelling as an art as well as political or social themes rather than literary experimentation. This study will focus on the implicit ways these themes are conveyed.

 Part I of this work is a foreword on the elements considered important in the analysis of implicitness, in other words concepts relevant to our study such as implicature, explicature or narrative modes that have largely puzzled the erudite mind. Part II is entirely dedicated to the study of Implicitness under the umbrella of the distinct narrative modes and of the Relevance Theory. The Conclusion aims to outline the basic trend American short stories have followed since the eighteenth century concerning the grade of implicitness the writers pervade their literature by.

Part I – An approach to relevant terms

Much has been written on Relevance Theory, Implicatures, and Explicatures, but in general all linguists claim that there is a distinction between the explicit content and the implicit import of an utterance. Jim Meyer’s distinction in his article What is Literature? A Definition based on Prototypes is a relevant one to bear in mind:

In pragmatics there is an important distinction between ‘explicatures’ and ‘implicatures’ in understanding the meaning of a text. An explicature is the semantic representation which is present in the linguistic cues of an utterance; an implicature depends on the explicatures (the propositions which are expressed) together with the context.

Jim Meyer makes some interesting quotations from Diane Blakemore’s Understanding utterances:

Speakers do not always intend to communicate a specific set of assumptions: sometimes the speaker’s intentions are less determinate so the hearer is simply encouraged to think along certain lines without necessary coming to any specific conclusion (1992.168).

Every hearer (or reader) is guided and encouraged by the text in the sense that it gives access to contextual assumptions which yield implicatures…A creative hearer is encouraged to take a greater share of the responsibility in the interpretation process, so that the extra effort she invests is rewarded by a wide array of very weak implicatures, which she is encouraged to explore (1992:172).

It is these ‘weak implicatures’ that we intend to analyse as well as the way the writer may violate many of the maxims Grice’s Cooperative Principle suggests as unequivocal to communicate accurately under the four categories. Namely: under Quantity: be as informative as required, do not be more informative than required; under Quality: make your contribution one that is true, do not say what you believe to be false, do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence; under Relation: be relevant; under Manner: be perspicuous (avoid obscurity of expression, avoid ambiguity, be brief and be orderly). 

The violation of these maxims may give place to what Meyer called ‘weak meaning’ or ‘weak implicatures’, meanings which are present but which are less strongly present and that, sometimes, combined with several other weak meanings may provoke in the reader the poetic effect. Meyer also quotes Blakemore on the definition of the poetic effect “the effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures” (Blakemore 1992:157). For Meyer then, a prototypical literary work contains many weak implicatures, so that the readers are invited to think of many propositions which are only weakly present.

Two other terms that may deserve a previous word are those of ‘short story’ and ‘narrative modes’. And in a way the latter will help as a tool to understand the former.  It is very difficult to define ‘short story’ most of all when it is still in midst of its development. Ian Reid tell us in The Short Story that we have to start defining ‘story’ and only then continue with ‘short’, afterwards analyse its evolution from the tale and note the impulse Romanticism gave to the genre acknowledging :

..that the short story typically centres on an inward meaning of a crucial event, on sudden momentous intuitions, ‘epiphanies’ in James Joyce’s sense of that word; by virtue of its brevity and delicacy it can, for example, single out with special precision those occasions when an individual is most alert or most alone (1982:28).

Reid also points out in his fifth chapter the ‘essential qualities’ of a short story, namely: unity of impression, moment of crisis, and symmetry of design and, what is more, questions their essentiality. It is not our intention to go into depth on these matters, may they interest us as much as they do, but arrive to a close definition which we can bear in mind while carrying out our research. For this matter we find Joyce Carol Oates’ personal definition the most relevant, being hers the selection of stories we are to deepen in:

My personal definition of the form is that it represents a concentration of imagination, and not an expansion, it is no more than 10.000 words; and no matter its mysteries of experimental properties, it achieves a closure- meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader understands why..[..]..Its resolution need not be a formally articulated statement…[..]..but it signals  a tangible change of some sort; a distinct shift in consciousness, a deepening of insight. (7) [1]

James Joyce, Ian Reid, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others, have realized that it was conflict and the reader’s awareness of it all, no matter if suddenly experienced in an “epiphanic” moment or through pages of swift consciousness, that generated a piece of literature and therefore a short story.

Helmut Bonheim through his analysis of The Techniques of the Short Story  arrived to the conclusion that some narrative modes have been more popular in one age than in another. Bonheim starts his first chapter saying that “Even the shortest of story forms, the anecdote, tends to use all of the chief modes of narrative” (1992:3) which he later defines as description, report, speech and comment. For Bonheim these four modes are “the staple diet of the short story and the novel” (1992:3). But not in all ages the hierarchy of modes has been the same:

“In our age speech stands high in the esteem of most readers. Description is thought boring except in small doses; comment of a particular kind, namely moralistic generalizing, is almost taboo, even where imbedded in speech; and even report is preferred in the dress of, or at least heavily interlarded with, speech.(1992:8)

Society’s tastes during a determined period will be reflected in its literature and the study of short stories will, no doubt, show us the same trend. For Bonheim a short story is:

“an amalgam, usually an unbalanced one, of the four modes : whereas Irving’s story consists of description and comment, these modes may be absent from stories written about a century later, such as Katherine Mansfield’s “Theft”, which contains the other two modes almost exclusively” (1992:14).

Part II – Implicitness in a Selection of the Short Stories in Joyce Carol Oates’ Anthology.

In our days general literature criticism believes that the writer should intrude as little as possible in the reader, what Joseph Warren Beach called “exit author thesis” in The Twentieth Century Novel, Studies in Technique (1932:14), but during the 18th and 19th  century this was not so. The fashion then indicated that the author could be very explicit in his comment and therefore the most popular modes were report and comment.

Following a chronological order in our selection, we first find Rip Van Winkle. Irving’s last sketch of his Sketch Book has hardly got any speech at all – except for the middle part of the story – but a lot of comment, description and report. Irving makes use of a series of pseudonyms which act twofold: as a twinkle to the faithful reader, who will remember his previous publicity campaign, and as a way to give his story authenticity. The story is supposed to have been first told by Rip Van Winkle himself, written by D. Knickerbocker as a true story and finally discovered by Geoffrey Crayon. This introduction may also recall Cervantes’ introduction to Don Quixote where he intends to assure accuracy. The interference of the writer is clear and very characteristic of the time. The story itself starts with a long description of the Kaatskill Mountains and with the author addressing directly the reader: “Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson, must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch (……) At the foot of these mountains, the voyager may have descried the light smoke curling up from a village” (18). What further characterises the opening of this story is that the description will not really be relevant to the plot, what would be considered out of place in a modern story. Irving continues his story with a report of Rip’s character and his falling asleep to wake up twenty years later. It is only when he wakes up that the author’s intentions come to surface. Towards the middle of the story, here also helped with speech, Irving reveals that Rip has awakened being part of a Republic and not a subject of the King of England. In his quest for identity, Rip symbolises America’s own quest; his divorce from the past may well be America’s denial of her British past. There are very ‘explicit’ symbols like the sign on the tavern which had been disguised as George Washington, but could still be identified by Rip as “the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe” (27) The story ends with one of its many samples of humour and irony: “it is a common wish of all henpecked husband [..] that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon”.(32)

William Austin, in his Peter Rugg, The Missing Man, makes use of a similar strategy to put forward his tale as a letter form Jonathan Dunwell of New York to Mr. Herman Krauff and to reassure, therefore, its authenticity. Austin, nevertheless, alternates report with speech and comment making his story much more ‘modern’, although it has also got a lot of explicit symbolism. This old yarn had been long told as a nursery tale and later was forgotten for a long time. Austin like Irving at the end of the story includes a “Further Account of Peter Rugg by Jonathan Dunwell” advocating for its veracity.  Here we find out that after having been running for years to find his home, without being successful because he had defied Nature with his cursing, he arrives to find his house burned and its land auctioned. The story is a parable and as Irving’s has also to do with Time. The Further Account finishes with an “explicit” explanation:

Then spake a voice from the crowd, but whence it came I could not discern. “There is nothing strange here but yourself, Mr. Rugg. Time, which destroys and renews all things, has dilapidated your house, and placed us here. […]..Your home is gone, and you can never have another home in this world.” (61)

Both Irving’s and Austin’s tales are about a subject that has always fascinated men: Time, though the way they make use of it may differ in intention and in form.

The Wives of the Dead follows the same line, starting Hawthorne the story addressing the reader “The following story, the simple and domestic incidents of which may be deemed scarcely worth relating..”(63) It directly starts informing the reader of an incident that though it may seem insignificant it had aroused interest and for some reason or other, and one immediately hopes for the best.  The comment and report on the part of the author will continue all through the story embedded even in descriptions of the sort: “Her sister-in-law was of a lively and irritable temperament, and the first pangs of her sorrow had been expressed by shrieks and passionate lamentation.” (64) The descriptions will leave little to the imagination of the reader and almost no implicit elements will be found throughout the story. On the other hand, it has, as almost all Hawthorne’s stories, a lot of moral content, especially concerning the well-natured sisters-in-law who, believing each to be the only one to have her husband alive, behave so unselfishly as to delay telling the other in order not to make her suffer.  The author is always very present even revealing the thoughts of the characters in the form of direct monologue “My poor sister¡ you will waken too soon from that happy dream,” thought Mary”.(68) What strikes, for the first time in the story to the 21st century reader is the last paragraph which leaves the final outcome open, “Before retiring, she set down the lamp and endeavoured to arrange the bed-clothes, so that the chill air might no do harm to the feverish slumberer. But her hand trembled against Margaret’s neck, a tear also fell upon her cheek, and she suddenly awoke.”(68) This paragraph also supplies an example of “implicature” with this tear that also fell, telling us that in her anxiety the young wife had also wept. We are left to imagine the following development of the scene leading towards the final discovering on the part of both sisters-in-law that the other knew of their husbands being still alive, or, as a more suspicious reader may suspect,  one of two informers could not have told the truth and the story could lead elsewhere had it been written. A final word can be said on the last “she awoke”. Could it not have been Margaret, but Mary? She might as well have been dreaming.

            If we turn to Herman Melville and his The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids, we encounter a prose that sounds much more familiar to the modern reader. To start with the story breaks out with an initial “It” that the reader will not fully understand until the end of the second long paragraph, thus violating one of Grice’s maxims, and making the reader keep on with curiosity: “It lies not far from Temple Bar. Going to it, by the usual way, is…” (70) The reader will also be intrigued about this ‘usual way’ which he is supposed to recognise. The technique was not very much extended in Melville’s time and it violates Grice’s Cooperative Principle maxim “Be perspicuous” The story is full of implicit meaning. It was the beginning of industrialization which, as it stood, was against the incipient democratic principles and Melville denounces it in the story. The two parts of the story represent the two worlds: the wealthy capitalist class that produced nothing and just lived an empty life “of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling and good talk” (76) – a men’s world and heaven – embodied by the Bachelors- and the other, the maid’s world and hell which incarnate wooing maids, young girls chained to a machine that dehumanize them and make them as white as the paper they manufacture. With this paper the lawyers will earn their money, bachelors will abuse maids, capitalist will control workers. The way the story is narrated, almost as if it were two different stories, is revolutionary for the time and indicates the gap between the two social classes. It may even indicate a feminist defence on the part of the writer “The girls,” echoed I glancing round at their silent forms. “Why is it, Sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?”(89) For the bachelor that governs them women must be like “mares haltered to the racks” and not allowed to have children or husbands that would only disturb them. Their forms are silent, unable to fulfil their natural development. The guide lad, Cupid, relates it all to the visitor, as if it were joke on the part of the writer on the interrelation man/woman. The final exclamation: “Oh¡ Paradise of Bachelors and Oh¡ Tartarus of Maids” (90) unites both worlds in the character’s mind giving them their real importance, realizing that the paradise he earlier praised was on account of the hell of so many. It is what modern criticism would call an ‘epiphanic’ moment.

Edgar Allan Poe’s mad character in the Tell-Tale Heart begins addressing in the first person the reader as if in a conventional chat: “True¡ nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; (….) You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” He will continue trying to convince the reader he is not mad and by the mere fact of doing so and telling how he killed the poor old fellow, because he could not get rid of the look of “his Evil Eye”, he convinces the reader of the contrary.  Poe creates the ambiance and masterly leads the reader to the final outburst of madness by means of a continued insight of the character’s mind. The mind of a man or a woman, we do not know because Poe uses “I” or “me” that is driven mad by the fear of the power of an evil eye which he finally cannot escape.

The Storm is a master piece by Kate Chopin which leaves little for the reader to imagine. It is one of the most explicit stories of marital deceit with a happy ending in the story of American literature and, what is more, with no sense of treachery on the part of the actors. “The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached”.(133) The writer goes a bit further stating that it was her flame that penetrated him and taught him what he still did not know. In a time, when women had to be aloof from all sexual desire, not to say of the actual knowledge of sex, The Storm could not have been but ignored by all publishers as it actually was. The metaphor of the storm depicts Calixta’s passion which when put off leaves her feeling even a better wife.  Both couples are explicitly told to be at ease at the end of the story: “So the storm passed and every one was happy.”

The Yellow Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman may be considered the opposite of The Storm if we discuss implicitness. There is so much implicit that still nowadays the story is being analysed and interpreted on different levels, namely psychological, sociological or feminist. There is a lot to be interpreted. Only some examples are cited below. From the very beginning, the narrator names herself only with pronouns: myself, me, one, I.   This has been interpreted by many authors as a way to disguise her identity under a veil of anonymity which could include many other women in the same condition. When the narrator uses her name, it is only at the end of the story and in the third person when she has become the other woman, the one which has escaped from the yellow paper and is addressing the husband. “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “ in spite of you and Jane.(169)  She is no longer Jane, she is “I”. The yellow paper symbolises the oppressive situation many women lived in at a time, when post-partum depression was considered an mental illness and women were prescribed isolation and immobility by male doctors, which many times drove them to real madness. Gilman depicts how a woman can finally get beyond the yellow paper defying men’s power. ”And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back¡” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time¡”(169) In the ending to the story it is the liberated woman that speaks, even if she is on her hands and knees, she keeps creeping over the fainted man.  Her husband faints because he cannot stand her half disobedience, or because he cannot consciously accept not having full power. The reader must make his own conclusions.

The Middle Years by Henry James is the story of an artist, a writer who achieves high quality art when he is about to die and cannot accept not having a further chance to continue with it now that it was finally in his possession. “The art had come, but it had come after everything else. At such a rate a first existence was too short-long enough only to collect material; so that to fructify, to use the material, one should have a second age, an extension. This extension was what poor Dencombe sighed for.” (174) James’ personal realism, which depicted his character’s inner experiences not merely life as seen in a mirror, works here very well. The writer by means of the character’s inner thoughts will keep us informed of almost everything. There is little implicit but we are taken by the hand of the author from beginning to end. Dencombe laments his almost lost life very early in the story foreshadowing the last sentences  ”Frustration’s only life,” said Doctor Hugh. “Yes, it’s what passes.” Poor Dencombe was barely audible, but he had marked with the words the virtual end of his first and only chance.” (189) This mixture of speech and comment on the part of the writer will close an ending which otherwise would have remained a little more open and nearer to 21st century taste.

Even more explicit is Jack London’s In a Far Country where the author in his celebrated two first paragraphs gives the reader a lesson of good behaviour when leaving the well-known domestic world to venture into the unknown natural world “For the courtesies of ordinary life, he must substitute unselfishness, forbearance, and tolerance.” Making use of report and comment Jack London will lead the reader till the end of the story where both characters kill each other after incurring in almost every capital sin. There is very little speech, just some thought in the third person narrator:

Well he would have company. If Gabriel ever broke the silence of the North, they would stand together, hand in hand, before the great White Throne. And God would judge them, God would judge them¡

Then Percy Cuthfert closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep.(205)

Old Woman Magoun by Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman) has relatively more speech than report or comment. It is a cry in favour of women and mostly coloured women. “The weakness of the masculine element in Barry’s Ford was laid low before such strenuous feminine assertion” (207)  The reader of the story – if not familiar with the author’s tales – will not know but for the language used by Old Woman Magoun that she is a coloured woman. Neither is he told that Lily is the daughter of a black woman and a white man. It is nevertheless implicit  “She’s got a good color” said Sally Jinks…(…)…”I know she’s got a beautiful color,” replied Old Woman Magoun, with an odd mixture of pride and anxiety, “but it comes an’goes.” (210) The beautiful colour and the mixture of pride and anxiety implies all the horror that lies under the life of a mulatto girl (though we are made aware of her blondness) whose grandmother knows better than let her grow up because she foresees an unlucky destiny in the hands of a loathsome white father. The episode of the berries which on the way to Greenham Lily is forbidden to eat foreshadows the final outcome as, later on, on the way back after having been denied the adoption which could have been the only salvation, the girl is almost induced to eat, though in a silent manner.  The author does not explicitly tell us what is in Old Woman Magoun’s mind, but she leaves it very clear with the single sentence “Come” she said, “it is time we were going. I guess you have set long enough.” (221) The girl has had enough poisonous berries and she will be freed from her terrible destiny of being given away as payment for gambling debts.

While getting closer to our time in our chronological journey through the anthology, we begin to encounter more and more implicit literature, less comment, more speech, and increasingly more ordinary characters who, notwithstanding, will in their quest for identity experience what any human being is deemed to experience: conflict and a moment of illuminating awareness. Often these characters will feel that life is an endless abyss of nothingness. On this line Ernest Hemmingway’s   A Clear Well-Lighted Place is one of the best examples of economy of words and comment but of profound enlightening on the eternal dichotomy between the young and fearless man and the more mature and sadly knowledgeable man who has finally realized there is “nada : pues nada” (299) to pray for. Hemmingway uses only two short paragraphs, the first – a description – and a middle one, in the form of interior monologue, to give the reader some explicit clues on the characters’ thoughts. The rest – mostly speech – serves to depict masterly the two worlds.

In The Strength of God, Sherwood Anderson’s Presbyterian minister also experiences this moment of sudden awareness that functions as a high-pressure valve through which all the repressed sexuality will give way to the appearance of God in the form of a naked school-teacher kneeling on a bed. Basically the story contains report and comment and the repressed thoughts of the only character. It is not until the end of the story that he addresses a second character, George Williard, to tell him how God gave him the strength to smash the window through which he spied the woman. But this second character will not utter a single word in response:

“I have found the light” he cried. “After ten years in this town, God has manifested himself to me in the body of a woman.”…..(….)..I am delivered. Have no fear…(…) “I smashed the glass of the window,” he cried. “Now it will have to be wholly replaced. The strength of God was in me and I broke it with my fist”. (263)

F. Scott Fitzgerald mastered another character-maybe because he had had the same suffering- who felt lost in the abyss of a wasted life. An Alcoholic Case shows two characters that though sympathising one with the other are jointly incapable of beating death. Death appears in a corner of the room, and both the nurse and her ‘case’ feel it.  ‘..she knew that death was in that corner where he was looking’.(309) Discouraged the nurse will explain, the day after, to her boss ‘It’s not like anything you can beat’ …(…)..it’s so discouraging –it’s all for nothing”.(309) Once again there is ‘nothing and then nothing’. With the use of ‘it’ and ‘anything’, of undetermined intrinsic meaning, the author implies that which the nurse is not able to put into words but the reader will perfectly grasp, thus violating all of Grice’s Cooperative Principle maxims.

William Faulkner, the most original writer of his day, almost re-invented fiction. He’s marvellous technique enhanced him to talk in the voices of every kind of character. In That Evening Sun the eternal tragedy of black people in the States is shown indirectly through the voices of the children of a white American family (its member will appear again in The Sound and the Fury published later). Through the incoherent chattering of the smaller children and a couple of assertions on the part of the father and Quentin, his nine-year-old daughter and first person narrator of the story, we learn the details of a frequent case of abuse to black women by white powerful men. Jesus, the black woman’s husband takes revenge in the person least guilty but most accessible: Nancy, his wife. “I just a nigger. It aint no fault of mine”.(350) Nancy’s moaning has all the tragedy implicit. She is not to blame but just accept her fate. After leaving Nancy alone in her cabin waiting for her destiny, Quentin’s question clears the reader’s doubts: “Who will do our washing now, Father?” I said. The matter is already settled and now the family has to look forward to their immediate needs, even a nine-year-old is aware of it. Faulkner mastered the economy of words and this “who?” is not questioning but really answering.

Richard Wright, less innovating but as reaching, depicts in The Man who was almost a Man another tragedy another black abuse. The reader together with the character, a fifteen-year-old black boy, will realize simultaneously at the time of hearing the sound of a train approaching, that the boy had been cheated into a-two-year slavery: “Two dollars a mont. Les see now…Tha means it’ll take bout two years. Shucks¡ Ah’ll be dam¡” (383) The reader is left running away with the boy after catching a train “away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man”.(383)  Here, once more in literature, an indefinite pronoun stands for the staple of modern society.

It is no coincidence that the first chapter of another memorable book starts: “It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life. I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was.”(441)  This is how Battle Royal, the first chapter of Ralph Ellison`s Invisible Man, begins. Here we encounter another black writer, but essentially the same character running after his identity and after success. Ellison’s character, does not have a name, he embodies all negro boys. The story is written in the first person singular and the reader does not have a clear picture of the narrator but the events narrated foreshadow what fate he will suffer. The anecdote of his grandfather will also serve as a device showing the boy the way to follow “Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity” (442) The remembrance will haunt him all his life and it is explicit at the end of the chapter in the form of a dream where his grandfather writes “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running”.(445) He acknowledges not having at the time an “insight into its meaning”. So the chapter starts as it finishes with a search for identity and this endless running after self-assurance.

Human eternal quest seems to have a tragic ending in Ray Bradbury’s Three Will Come Soft Rains. It is a terrible future of nuclear war that mankind should avoid. There are many interesting features in the story as personification to describe the house’s actions,  that continues to function as if nothing had happened.  The house is afraid, though, and that fright is reasonable because the family is gone though “their images burnt in wood in one titanic instant” (458) can yet been seen.  The writer does not inform the reader immediately of the facts but goes little by little drawing the picture. The title of the story, the poem chosen by the house to be said  –not precisely at random – parallels the story up to the final outcome: “And no one will know of the war, not one will care at last when it is done. No one would mind, neither bird nor tree. If mankind perished utterly” (460) It is precisely the falling of a tree that will cause the final disappearance of the house under the fire. Then  everything collapses and leaves us one last voice “Today is August 5, 2026, today is…”(462) and hoping it would not be premonitory.

For the last part of the anthology Joyce Carol Oates selected several stories by contemporary writers, many of which belong to ethnic or social minorities, that have progressively had more and more echo in society and whose vindications are conveyed in their literature masterly and growingly elliptically.

Leslie Marmon Silko is one of them and Yellow Woman one of her best stories. As many of her contemporary writers, she does not openly speak in her literature but her message is implicit in depths in her stories. Hers is the voice of many Native Americans and it brings up issues of personal identity, cultural identity, and genre identity. The story is told in the first person singular and the narrator loosens herself to gradually believe she is Yellow Woman, part of myth and tradition and therefore free to live her sensuality without guilty feelings. But there is much more to the story if closely studied. With the frequent mention of dampness, heat, warmth in connection with the narrator’s senses, the author is linking  Mother Creator with her siblings. “My thigh clung to his with dampness…[…]…I cleaned the sand out of the cracks between my toes…[…]…I felt hungry…” (592) The land and the woman are all one, the narrator begins to feel part of tradition too, she wonders “if Yellow Woman had known who she was…[…]..Maybe she had another name. (493)  Later Silva will tell her “  But some day they will talk about us, and they will say “Those two lived long ago when things like that happened.” (595)

“Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell” This is the beginning of Cynthia Ozick’s story The Shawl. This seven words foreshadow the hell to be lived by the main character, Rosa , as well as depicts the character of Stella, her condition of being terrible cold and the ultimate reason of Rosa’s child death.  The title of the story the ‘shawl’ also functions as a symbol: it will first serve to hide Magda – Rosa’s baby – from the Nazis and later stop her from screaming when she actually watches the child die. In the story we first encounter coldness, naked, harsh words but gradually the author will impregnate them with a poetic scent “All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda travelled through loftiness.” (605) The words describe the instant previous to the child’s death against an electrified fence in a Nazi concentration camp. How else could it be beared?

David Leavitt’s Gravity has lots implicit in the title too. Gravity is what has to be beaten to prove human consistency. There is no direct reference to AIDS in the story nor to HIV+ but it is very well implied as for example in the incident of the two salesmen who refuse to shake Theo’s hand.  The title is echoed in “It seemed Sylvia had been looking a long time for something like this, something heavy enough to leave an impression, yet so fragile it could make you sorry.”  The  impression would be left, not only in Bibi but also in Theo who will realize that – no matter what – he could still mark a difference, impose his being and by doing so help both his mother and himself to “win some small but sustaining victory” (745).

Today’s writer has no other choice than to provoke with literature sudden revealing moments, epiphanies, ‘titanic instants’ because today’s conflicts are otherwise unspeakable; perspicuousness too flat. 

Perspicuous writing is also too limited for Sandra Cisneros. Her stories, almost poems, are like photographed instants, exquisite life portraits that elliptically tell us about Latino community in North America and its terrible circumstances. A house of My Own for example, consists of only two paragraphs, one of them only a sentence “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem”. (749) and yet encompassing so many “weak implicatures”.

Finally, a word on Heat: our author’s own contribution to her anthology. Oates expresses in the foreword to the story that “For the author, the formal challenge of Heat was to present a narrative in a seemingly acausal manner, analogous to the playing of a piano sans pedal, as if each paragraph, or chord, were separate from the rest” (607). She thoroughly accomplishes the challenge. As  J. Alan Rice noted in his detailed study Chord Structure in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Heat” (1995), Oates “means that the narrative has been pared down to its essentials”. Her intention being to diminish it gradually until it is understood as unique notes “without sustaining notes from one chord to another” asserts Rice. “But the most important aspect of the structure of “Heat” is that the final chord, that which the story is about, is missing.” Once again how could something as despairing as the raping and murder of two girls else be told?

Conclusion

The success of a piece of literature is parallel to its success in reaching each and every reader.  The best way to do it will depend on the artist’s expertise and sensibility. There are no predetermined rules and the history of literature endorses it, but, many times, to convey meaning on part of the writer or to apprehend it on part of the reader is no easy task; it implies alertness on both sides.    In Joyce Carol Oates’ own words: “Because the meaning of the story does not lie on its surface, visible and self-defining, does not mean that meaning does not exist. Indeed, the ambiguity of meaning, its inner, private quality, may well be part of the writer’s vision.” (8)

From the 18th century up to our days storytelling has experienced notable changes. Far back in time have the parables with moralistic comment been discarded. Detailed description and lengthy report have also suffered a continuous metamorphosis evolving to more and more succinct speech, at times only images, the meaning of which the reader is merely invited to seize.

Notwithstanding this evolution, nothing is definite. Storytelling is a long winding road; a multi-dimensional road along which Society can trek, develop, progress and be substantially represented while led in its eternal quest for identity.

Works Cited

Beach, Joseph Warren. The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York. The Century Co., 1932.

Blakemore, Diane. Understanding utterances. Oxford: Blackwell. 1992.

Bonheim, Helmut. The Narrative Modes: Techniques of the Short Stories. Cambridge.D.S. Brewer. 1992

Grice, H.P. Pragmatics: A reader. Oxford University Press. 1991.

Meyer, Jim. What is Literature? A Definition Based on Prototypes. Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. University of North Dakota. 41: [33-42].1997.

Oates, Joyce Carol. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Oxford & New York : Oxford University Press. 1994.

Reid, Ian. The Short Story. Methuen & Co. Ltd. New York. 1982.

Rice, J. Alan. Chord Structure in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Heat”. Copyright 1995. http://www.levity.com/corduroy/oateshea.htm (20/02/2002)

Myriam Mercader


[1] All pages without any special indication correspond to Joyce Carol Oates’s The Oxford Book of American Short Stories.