The short story's dependence on tightly unified form rather than mimetic methods has been its central aesthetic characteristic since Poe’s assertion: 'In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency . . . is not to the pre-established design.'" One of the reasons the short story has always been less respected by critics than the novel is the often tacit, sometimes explicit, suspicion that there is something psychologically or aesthetically "unhealthy" about the form, that it is "obsessed" with an abnormally artificial and intense unity that has a tendency to dissolve the referential material of the form.
The short story's dependence on form, however, is not simply a product of Edgar Allan Poe's obsessive imagination; it is a conventional characteristic deriving from the short story's ancestry in myth and folklore. As Frederic Jameson reminded us in The Prison House of Language, short stories have a kind of "atemporal and object-like unity in the way they convert existence into a sudden coincidence between two systems: a resolution of multiplicity into unity, or a fulfillment of a single wish." Jameson says that for Poe the short story was a way of "surmounting time, of translating a formless temporal succession into a simultaneity which we can grasp and possess."
Poe has always been accused of being indifferent to living, flesh and blood subjects. W. H. Auden has said there is no place in any of his stories for "the human individual as he actually exists in space and time," that is, as a natural creature and an historical person. Richard Wilbur in his famous Library of Congress Lecture in 1959 concluded that Poe's aesthetic that "art should repudiate everything human and earthly," was insane. However, the repudiation of "reality" as defined only as everyday human experience is precisely what myth and folklore--the primal forerunners of the short story--are based on.
As Mircea Eliade has shown, when primitive human beings divided the world into the two realms of the profane (the world of everyday reality) and the sacred (the world of desire for immanent or transcendent meaning), they had no doubt that true reality lay within the realm of the sacred. Poe's aesthetic, and thus the dominant aesthetic of the short story, has always been based on this same assumption that the artistic objectification of desire, not the stuff of everyday, is true reality.
Although Poe's immediate background for this perspective lay in the gothic romance popular in Germany and England, the late 18th- and early 19th-century romance with which Poe was familiar differed from its medieval prototype by being a hybrid form that combined the symbolic projective characters of the old romance with the increasingly realistic detail and social reality of the novel.
The ambiguity and complexity of such early prototypes of the short story as "Young Goodman Brown, "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "Bartleby, the Scrivener" result from the fact that in these stories allegorical characters in a code-bound plot uneasily interrelate with realistic characters in the verisimilitude of a real world. The sense we have that something "unnatural" motivates Goodman Brown, Roderick Usher, and Bartleby results from the fact that they are allegorical figures who have stepped into an "as-if-real" world created by the techniques of verisimilitude.
Angus Fletcher provides a suggestion about the effect created by such juxtaposition in his discussion of allegory. He argues that because the allegorical figure is bound to its single role in the story in which it plays a part, if placed in the real world, the character would act like an obsessed person. For example, a character named "Faith" in an allegory would act as if she were obsessed with faith, since she would be an embodiment of that characteristic and thus could not "think" of anything else. And indeed, the characters in short fiction often seem motivated by something that they cannot articulate and that those around them cannot easily understand.
The most obvious early examples are those stories by Poe that focus on "the perverse," that obsessive-like behavior that compels someone to act in a way that may go against reason, common sense, even the best interests of the survival of the physical self. In many of Poe's most important stories, the obsession is presented as behavior that can only be manifested in elliptical or symbolic ways.
Two of Hawthorne's best-known stories--"Wakefield" and "Young Goodman Brown"--also manifest this same mysterious sense of obsessive acts that have no obvious, commonsense motivation. Goodman Brown alternately acts as if he were an allegorical figure who must make his journey into the forest as an inevitable working out of the preordained mythic story of which he is a part, and as a psychologically complex, realistic character who, although obsessed with his journey, is able to question its wisdom and morality. In "Wakefield" Hawthorne is not interested in a man who is realistically motivated to leave his wife because he no longer cares for her, but rather a character who gets so entangled in an obsessive act that he can neither explain it nor escape it.
Melville's Bartleby cannot explain why he is compelled to behave as he does either. He responds to the wall outside his window as if it were not merely a metaphor for the absurdity that confronts him, but rather the absurdity itself and thus, like Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he responds to the map as if it were the territory, kicks himself loose from the earth, and becomes transformed into a character who no longer can be defined within social, historical, or cultural contexts. As a result, the reader is caught in an ambivalent situation of not knowing whether to respond to Bartleby as if he is a character who is psychologically obsessed or an allegorical emblem of obsession. It is typical of the short story that when an obsessed character makes the metaphoric mistake of perceiving a metaphor as real, he or she becomes transformed into a parabolic figure in a fable of his own her own creation.
What is it about the short story that demands this focus on unified form, and what does "obsession" have to do with it? A brief summary of some of the characteristics of psychological obsession may point to some answers. Freud says, and most analysts confirm, that obsessive acts are usually performed to escape feelings of dread or anxiety--most often defined as a vague fear of loss of identity. Rollo May in The Meaning of Anxiety says that Franklin D. Roosevelt's line about "fear of fear itself" is what he means by anxiety, since anxiety results from no discernible cause. As Roderick Usher says about his struggle with the grim fantasy FEAR, he has no abhorrence of danger, "except in its absolute effect--in terror." Analysts suggest that since anxiety cannot be dealt with directly because its sources are usually unknown, the individual develops defenses against it, of which the obsessive defense is the most common.
Ritual is one of the most characteristic obsessive means by which one defends against anxiety, for the ritual act is a symbolic enactment to simulate command of that for which the personality feels it has no control. Freud's famous "fort-da, described" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which a baby repetitively throws a toy out of its crib to simulate its sense of control over the mother's departure is perhaps the most famous example. If, as Georg Lukács has said, the short story is the most artistic form, it may be because, as Frederic Jameson has suggested, it is the most formal and ritualistic narrative form, for it recapitulates the most basic motivation of the artistic impulse--the "for-da"--the need to create a similitude of control.
Randal Jarrell describes the same compulsion when he claims that our stories show that we take pleasure in "repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all that we found unbearable: the child whose mother left her so often that she invented a game of throwing her doll out of her crib, exclaiming as it vanished 'Gone! gone!' was a true poet." Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation, and mortal anxiety--existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do.
As psychologist Leon Salzman reminds us, the obsessive impulse is not a defense against anxiety about everyday problems, but rather anxiety about the most basic problems that arise from our fundamental humanness. Salzman says that realization of one's "humanness--with its inherent limitations--is often the basis for considerable anxiety and obsessive attempts at great control over one's living." Freud noted that obsessed neurotics turn their thoughts "to those subjects upon which all mankind are uncertain and upon which our knowledge and judgments remain open to doubt. The chief subjects of this kind are paternity, length of life, life after death, and memory....”
The entire line of development of the short story--from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver--has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object. As a result the short story has often been accused of being cut off from everyday social reality and thus somehow unhealthy.
However, this severance from social reality is simply part of the short story's generic heritage. In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schlegel argued that the short narrative form is like a story "torn away from any cultural background"--a perception echoed by Frank O'Connor's famous claim that the short story focuses on characters that remain remote from the community--"romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
Richard Ford has said that short stories in particular do not have a clear relationship to the national character because they are often about things that are not clear but need clearing up: "Making short stories into exponents for history certainly isn't the most interesting thing we can do with them....” Interesting or not, when critics are unable to find any semblance of social reality in fiction, they are apt to accuse the form of being "inhuman" and "unnatural." When they encounter fiction that depends on poetic techniques of compression and highly unified form rather than mimetic techniques of expansion and verisimilitude, they are apt to call it "obsessive" and "mechanical."
Perhaps there is something about the essential nature of storytelling that naturally moves toward compression and form as opposed to expansion and explanation. Walter Benjamin seems to think so in his well-known discussion of Nikolai Leskov, for he notes that one of the main reasons for the decline in storytelling is the increase in the dissemination of information: "Actually it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it . . .. The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the event is not forced upon the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks."
If Benjamin is right, then the common critical accusation that the short story is somehow unnatural and obsessed is merely the result of a common bias toward novelistic information and away from the pure storytelling of the short story.