Gordian Plot

The short story plot, and an analysis of the ambitious guest

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The short story plot, and an analysis of the ambitious guest

The correct short story possesses unity of form as well as unity of plot. In the novel there may be wide gaps of time and scene between adjacent chapters; but the short story allows of no such chasms of thought, much less of chapters. Parts or chapters in a short story are uncanonical. A short story is essentially a unit, and the necessity of divisions indicates the use of a plot that belongs to some larger form of literature; but the indicated "parts" or "chapters" may be false divisions introduced through the influence of the conventions of the novel.

The various divisional signs to be avoided are the separate entries or letters of the diary or epistolary forms, the introduction of stars or blank spaces to indicate a hiatus, and the division of the narrative into parts or chapters. The evils of the diary and epistolary forms have already been discussed and need no further comment. The use of stars or spaces either is due to an improper plot, or is entirely unnecessary. In the first instance the fault is radical, and the only remedy is complete reconstruction; in the second case the difficulty resolves itself into an ignorance or a disregard of rhetorical conventions. Often the story is deliberately divided and forced to appear in several chapters when its plot and treatment make its unity very evident; and solely because the amateur has an idea, caught from his novel reading, that such divisions are essential to a well told story. They are not necessary to many novels, though they may be convenient; and they have no place in the scheme of the short story. There are stories, "short" at least in length, in which divisions are necessary to indicate breaks which do not seriously interrupt the coherency of the narrative; they may be readable stories, but they can never be models.

The ideal short story, from the point of unity, is one which requires the passage of the least time and presents the fewest separate incidents. It is the relation of a single isolated incident, which occupies only the time required to tell it. "The Ambitious Guest" impresses the reader as a single incident and would seem to approach this perfection, but a careful analysis of it resolves it into a number of minor incidents, so closely related and connected that at first glance they appear to form a perfect whole. The component incidents of the body of "The Ambitious Guest" (¶ 5-39) are:

¶ 5-7. The stranger praises the fire and reveals his       destination.

¶ 8, 9. A stone rolls down the mountain side. (Lapse of time       indicated here.)

¶ 10, 11. The characters are described, as they reveal       themselves through their conversation.

¶ 12-23. They converse rather frankly of their several       ambitions.

¶ 24-27. A wagon stops before the inn, but goes on when the       landlord does not immediately appear.

¶ 28-31. A touch of sentimental byplay between the stranger and       the maid.

¶ 32. A sadness creeps over the company, caused, perhaps, by the       wind wailing without.

¶ 33-39. The grandmother discusses her death and burial.

None of these incidents, except those containing the rolling stone and the passing travelers, possess sufficient action or identity to be called an incident, except for some such analytical purpose. They are rather changes in the subject under discussion than separate happenings. With the exception already noted, it may be said that there is no time gap between these incidents, for each one begins at the expiration of its predecessor. The connection and relation of the sub-incidents is not always as close as this. In a longer story they could be more distinct and definite and yet preserve the unity of the work; but they should never disintegrate into minor climaxes,[37] nor into such a jerky succession of disassociated scenes as the following:

On a fair sweet spring morning in the lovely month of May,     Squire Darley finishes an important letter. He reads it over the     second time to see that there is no mistake.

"There, that'll do, I think," he soliloquizes. "And that'll     fetch him, I think. Peculiar diseases require peculiar     remedies." And he chuckled to himself. Then with deliberate care     he addressed it to "Mr. H. C. Darley, New York City."

A few words to my reader, and we will then follow this important     letter. Five years before the time of which we write, Abner     Vanclief, a poor but honorable gentleman, had died, leaving his     motherless daughter to the sole care of his lifelong friend,     Horace Darley, a wealthy country gentleman, a widower, with only     one son.

Squire Darley was quite at a loss to know what to do with this,     his new charge. He did not think it fit and proper to take her     to Darley Dale, with only himself and servants as companions.     Then, too, she was sadly in need of schooling.

At last after much worry on his part, it was satisfactorily     arranged between himself and a maiden sister, that resided in     Albany, that Violet was to remain with her, attend the best     college, pay strict attention to her studies and music, and when     her education should be completed, she, if she wished, was to     make Darley Dale her future home.

Four years passed swiftly by, and then "Dear Aunt Molly," as     Violet had learned to call her, was taken violently ill; and     before her brother came her sweet spirit had flown away and poor     Violet was again alone. But after she became fairly installed as     mistress at Darley Dale, she soon learned to love the place and     also to love the dear old man that had been to her so staunch a     friend.

As for his son Harley, she had heard his praises sung from     morning until night. She had never seen him, for at the time of     her father's death he was attending college, and before she     returned to Darley Dale he had hied himself off to New York     City, there to open a law office and declare that his future     home.

Many times the Squire had written him beseeching him to return,     but always met with a courteous refusal.

When Violet had been at Darley Dale a year she was surprised     beyond measure by an offer of marriage from Squire Darley.

He had enlarged upon the fact that his son was a most obstinate     young man, that he himself was growing old, and that he wished     to see her well cared for before he died.

She had assured him that she could work, and that she was     willing to work when the time came, but the old Squire proved     himself to be as obstinate as his wilful son. And at last     Violet, with a white drawn face, and dark frightened eyes,     consented to become his wife at some future time.

And the letter addressed to Mr. H. C. Darley contained the     announcement of the engagement of Squire Horace to Miss Violet     Vanclief.

It is seldom that even a model short story plot will be a perfect unit, for in the story, as in the life which it pictures, some slight change of scene and some little passage of time are inevitable. Thus in any short story there is usually a slight hiatus of thought, due to these causes, which must be bridged over. The tyro will span the chasm by means of stars or some such arbitrary signs, but the master will calmly ignore such gaps and preserve the unity of his narrative so deftly that even the lines of the dovetailing will be scarcely visible. Thus in "The Ambitious Guest" (¶ 9, 10) Hawthorne had need to indicate the passage of some little time, during which the guest had his supper; but the breach is passed in so matter-of-fact a manner that there is no jolt, and yet the sense of time is secured:

Let us now suppose the stranger to have finished his supper of     bear's meat, and by his natural felicity of manner to have     placed himself on a footing of kindness with the whole family;     so that they talked as freely together as if he belonged to     their mountain-brood.

When the plot comprises a series of closely related episodes the story should be located in the time of the most important one, and all necessary preliminary matter should be introduced as briefly and casually as possible in one of the several ways already given.[38] Indeed, the whole difficulty is usually due to a poor beginning, and properly belongs to the preceding chapter.

Next to the use of divisions comes the error, also caught from the novel, of making the short story a carryall for divers bits of wisdom, moralizing, description, and literary small talk, which have no part in the narrative, but which the clever and self-appreciative author has not the heart to withhold from the public. The art of omission is an important branch of the art of authorship. It is seldom necessary to tell the novice what to put in; but it is frequently necessary to tell him--and oh! so hard to persuade him!--that to introduce an irrelevant idea is worse than to omit a necessary detail. The young writer must learn early and learn once for all the absolute necessity for the exclusion of non-essentials. Selection of details plays an important part in any literary work, but in the short story extreme care is indispensable, for the short story has too little space to sacrifice any to pretty but useless phrases. Such irrelevant matter is usually called "padding," and its presence is a serious detriment to the success of any story, however clever in conception.

One of the chief causes of padding is the desire for "local color"--a term by which we characterize those details which are introduced to make a story seem to smack of the soil. These details must be eminently local and characteristic--possible of application to only the small community to which they are ascribed--or they are mere padding. The need of local color depends much upon the character of the story: it varies from a doubtful addition to the story of ingenuity or adventure, to a necessary part of the story portraying human life and character. "Without blindly indulging in local color one must be accurate in indicating facts. A work of art must not be crowded with so-called local color, but certain facts must be known and used to give the effect of a true relation.... The atmosphere, the feeling and idiosyncrasy--a word or a phrase which reveals character--are the only true local color, not passing phrases of unkempt speech."[39] The stories of Miss Wilkins, Octave Thanet, Bret Harte, and Joel Chandler Harris are full of excellent examples of local color.

Every perfect short story will contain a strong argument for good, through its subtle exposition of the earning of the "wages of sin," but any attempt to make it a medium for the spreading of ethical and spiritual truths will entail ridicule upon the writer and failure upon his work. The only legitimate purpose of the short story is to amuse, and didacticism in literature is always inartistic. "Novels with a purpose" may find publishers and readers; but no one, except the author, cares for "polemic stories--such as set forth the wickedness of Free Trade or of Protection, the Wrongs of Labor and the Rights of Capital, the advantages of one sect over another, the beauties of Deism, Agnosticism, and other unestablished tenets.... Genius will triumph over most obstacles, and art can sugar-coat an unwelcome pill; but in nineteen cases out of twenty the story which covers an apology for one doctrine or an attack upon the other has no more chance than if it were made up of offensive personalities."[40] "Though ordinary dramatic short stories do not have a moral which shows itself, still under the surface in every story is something which corresponds to the moral, and which we shall call _the soul of the story_."[41] The short story cannot properly be a mere sermon, such as are so often penned under the caption of "The Drunkard's Wife," "The Orphan's Prayer," "The Wages of Sin," and other similar titles. It must teach its moral lesson in its own way--its artistic presentation of the great contrast between the sort of men who work deeds of nobility and of shame. If it be saddled with didacticism or tailed with a moral, it ceases to be a story and becomes an argument; when it no longer concerns us.

Indirectly, and perhaps unintentionally, the short story is a great factor for good. The world is weary of the bald sermons of the Puritans, and of their endeavor to "point a tale" by every ordinary occurrence; it is rather inclined to a Pharisaical self-righteousness; and needs to have its sins, and the practical benefits of goodness, cunningly insinuated; but it can never fail to admire and strive to emulate the noble deeds of noble men, whether creatures of flesh or phantoms of the brain. To be sure, many of our best short stories deal with events so slight and really unimportant that they might be said to have no moral influence; yet, if they simply provide us with innocent amusement for an idle hour, their ethical value must not be overlooked; and when they do involve some great moral question or soul crisis their influence is invariably on the right side.

The point is that religion is not literature. The mere fact that the heroine of a story is a poor milk and water creature, full of bald platitudes and conventional righteousness, does not make that narrative correct or readable; indeed, it is very apt to make it neither, for the platitudes will be irrelevant and the righteousness uninteresting. When this old world of ours becomes really moral we may be content to read so-called stories in which goody-good characters parade their own virtues and interlard their ordinary speech with prayers and hymns and scriptural quotations; but while a tithe of the present sin and crime exists our fiction will reflect them with the other phases of our daily life.

Now by this I do not at all mean that religion has no place in literature. Such a ruling would not only be contrary to the practice of our best writers, but would also deprive us of a recognized and important element in human life. The religious influence is one of the most powerful to which man is subject, and as it plays so great a part in our lives it must necessarily figure largely in our stories. But it must be treated there because of the manner in which it influences human life and action, and not from the ethical standpoint: it must be made literature and not religious dogmatism. That it can be so treated and yet retain the full strength of its power for good is best illustrated in the works of Miss Wilkins. Nearly every one of her stories possesses a strong element of New England Puritanism, but there is no attempt to preach or moralize.

The short story must be well proportioned: those parts which are essential differ materially in their importance, and they must be valued and handled in accordance with their influence upon the plot. No scene, however cleverly done, must be allowed to monopolize the space of the story, except in so far as it is necessary to an understanding of what follows; and no incident which furthers the plot, however trivial or ordinary it may seem to you, must be slighted. The preservation of the balance of the story is not wholly a matter of the number of words involved: often a page of idle chatter by the characters makes less impression on the reader than a single terse direct sentence by the author himself; but in general the practice is to value the various parts of the story by the word space accorded them. This rule will not, however, hold good in the case of the climax, which is estimated both by its position and by the manner in which it is worked up to.

The story proper is really only the preparation for the climax. Most stories depend for their interest upon the pleasure with which we follow the principal characters through various trying episodes, and the great desire which we all experience to know "how it all comes out." It is this innate sense, which seems to be a phase of curiosity, that affords the pleasure that the average reader derives from fiction. One seldom stops to consider how a story is written, but judges it by its power to keep him absorbed in the fortunes of its hero and heroine. This is the element of suspense.

However, there finally comes a point when the suspense cannot be longer continued, and the strained attention of the reader is on the verge of collapsing into indifference, when the curiosity must be gratified by at least a partial revelation; and so the element of surprise enters. Too long a strain on the interest is invariably fatal, and the thing is to know when to relieve the tension. Just when this relief should occur depends upon the plot and the length of the story, so that the question must be settled separately for each particular case. As has already been said, the plot of a short story should not be involved; yet it may be permitted some degree of complexity. In such a case it is probable that there must be some preliminary relief of suspense before the final relief which the climax offers. However, because of the usual simplicity of the plot, the length of the story has greater influence in regulating the relief of the suspense. In a story of 3,000 words or less there is neither room nor necessity for any preliminary surprise, and the most effective method is to withhold all hints at the outcome until the actual climax, as Hawthorne did in "The Ambitious Guest." But when the story approaches or exceeds 10,000 words it is probable that there must be some lessening of the tension previous to the climax, as in Henry James' "The Lesson of the Master." This story, which contains 25,000 words, is divided into six parts, each representing a separate scene in the progress of the story; and yet, so skillful is James, there is no hiatus between the parts, and the story as a whole has unity of impression. At the end of each part the reader has made a definite advance toward the point of the story, through the preliminary relief of suspense afforded by that part, as a study of this brief outline will show:


At the end Paul Overt first sees Henry St. George, and the     reader receives a definite picture of the great author, who has     hitherto been only a name.


At the end the two meet, and the picture is given life.


All through this division St. George reveals to Overt his real     character, so that when the end comes Overt has a less exalted     idea of the master than that which he had cherished.


At the end Marion Fancourt tells Overt of St. George's declared     intention to cease visiting her. This relieves suspense by     making Overt's position toward her more definite, but also     involves matters because of St. George's failure to give any     good reason for his action.


At the end Overt, by the advice of St. George, sacrifices in the     cause of true art all his natural desires for love and domestic     joys.


In the first part Overt learns of St. George's engagement to     Miss Fancourt.

At the end St. George tells Overt that he has given up writing     to enjoy those very things which he advised Overt to renounce.

A study of this outline will show you the necessity, in the case of this story, of these preliminary reliefs of the suspense. It would have been absurdly impossible to have tried to hold in abeyance until the climax all these matters; nor does the solving of any of these minor perplexities at all lessen the interest in the denouement. Each bit of information comes out at the proper time as a matter of course, just as it would come to our knowledge if we were observing a similar drama in real life.

When the outcome of the writer's meanderings is finally revealed, it should be a veritable surprise--_i. e._, be unexpected. This is a matter that is rather easily managed, for it is a poor plot that does not afford at least two settlements--either the heroine marries the hero, or she marries the villain; and often there is a third possibility, that she marries neither. If he has provided a proper plot, the author has but little to do with making the surprise genuine, and that little is rather negative. He opens the possibility of the hero doing any one of a number of things, and he may even give rather broad hints, but he should take care never to give a clue to the outcome of the story, unless he purposely gives a misleading clue. The most artistic method is to make these hints progressive and culminative, so that though each one adds to the knowledge of the reader, it is only when they all culminate in the climax that the mystery is completely solved.

This preparation for the climax is one of the most delicate tasks required of the short story writer. The climax must seem the logical result of events and personal characteristics already recited. If it is too startling or unexpected it will be a strain on the credulity of the reader, and will be dubbed "unnatural;" for though fiction allows great license in the employment of strange people and situations, it demands that they be used with some regard for plausibility. The ending must appear inevitable--but its inevitableness must not be apparent until the end has come. It is only after the story has been read that the reader should be able to look back through the narrative and pick out the preparatory touches. They must have influenced him when first he read them and prepared him for what was to come, but without his being conscious of their influence.

The novice usually prepares the way for his climax so carefully that he gives it away long before he should. This he does either by means of anticipatory side remarks, or by making the outcome of his story so obvious at the start that he really has no story to tell, and a climax or surprise is impossible. The first fault is much the easier to correct: most of the side remarks can be cut out bodily without injury to the story, and those which are really necessary can be so modified and slurred over that they will prepare the way for the climax without revealing it. The other fault is usually radical: it is the result of a conventional plot treated in the conventional manner. It is beyond help so far as concerns that particular story, for it requires a new plot handled in an original manner; but its recurrence can be prevented if the writer will be more exacting in his selection of plots, and more individual in his methods. It can usually be detected in the beginning, as in the case of the last example quoted in Chapter VIII.

In "The Ambitious Guest" the climax is led up to most skillfully by Hawthorne; indeed, his preparation is so clever that it is not always easy to trace. Throughout the story there are an air of gloom and a strange turning to thoughts of death that seem to portend a catastrophe; and I believe the following passages are intentional notes of warning:

1 ... a cold spot and a dangerous one.... stones would often        rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight.

2 ... the wind came through the Notch and seemed to pause before        their cottage, ... wailing and lamentation.... For a moment it        saddened them, though there was nothing unusual in the tones.

3 ... whose fate was linked with theirs.

8 (Entire.)

9 (Entire.)

10 ... a prophetic sympathy ... the kindred of a common        fate....

12 (Entire.)

14 "... a noble pedestal for a man's statue." (Doubtful.)

16 "... things that are pretty certain never to come to pass."

17 "... when he is a widower."

18 "When I think of your death, Esther, I think of mine too. But        I was wishing we had a good farm ... round the White Mountains,        but not where they could tumble on our heads.... I might die        happy enough in my bed.... A slate gravestone would suit me as        well as a marble one...."

20 "They say it's a sign of something when folk's minds go        a-wandering so."

22 "... go and take a drink out of the basin of the Flume."        (Doubtful; unless regarded as the result of some subtle warning        to fly the spot.)

26 ... though their music and mirth came back drearily from the        heart of the mountain.

28 ... a light cloud passed over the daughter's spirit....

32 ... it might blossom in Paradise, since it could not be        matured on earth ... the wind through the Notch took a        deeper and drearier sound.... There was a wail along the        road as if a funeral were passing.

36 (Entire.)

38 (Entire.)

39 (Entire.)

A novice writing the same story would hardly have refrained from introducing some very bald hints concerning the fate of the ambitious stranger; for the novice has a mistaken idea that wordy and flowery exclamations make sad events all the sadder, forgetting that silent grief is the keenest. Thus the novice would have interlarded his narrative with such exclamations as:

¶ 12.

Ah! could the unfortunate stranger but have guessed the       culmination of his bright dreams, how would he have bewailed       his fate!

¶ 19.

Unhappy youth! _his_ grave was to be unmarked, his very death       in doubt!

¶ 28.

Poor girl! had she a premonition of her awful death?

Such interpolations are very exasperating to the reader, for he much prefers to learn for himself the outcome of the tale; and they also greatly offend against the rhetorical correctness of the story, for they are always utterly irrelevant and obstructive.

The only stories which may properly anticipate their own denouements are what might be called "stories of premonition," in which the interest depends upon comparing actual events to the prophecy of dreams or some other mystical agency. In such tales the real interest is usually in the weirdness of the whole affair--though, to be sure, they do not always turn out as they are expected to. For, after all, this introduction of surprise into fiction is simply an imitation of nature, and "it is the unexpected that always happens."

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