ENG 255 What Makes a Tale Worth Telling?

Michael Gorra, M W 1:10 PM-2:30 PM

Hawthorne begins his 1844 “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by appearing to disclaim his own authorship.  This tale of love and poison and magic in Renaissance Italy comes instead from the pen of a “M. de l’Aubépine,” the author among others of a book called Contes deux fois racontées.  But that is simply a translation of one of his own titles—Twice-Told Tales—and aubépine is the small tree, often found in hedges, that in English is called hawthorn.  Writers often claimed to have stumbled across their manuscripts—Hawthorne himself would do it in The Scarlet Letter—but here this manuver seems especially playful.  Both the claim and the story’s alleged source in a foreign tongue serve, as much as does the tale itself, to link the piece to a European tradition of short fiction in which stories were held to come from long ago and far away.

 This course began with a problem I wanted to work out for myself.  I felt I had some grasp of how the modern short story had developed from Chekhov, say, on to our own time.  But what had happened before that—how had we gotten to Chekhov in the first place?  The short narratives of 19th century fiction, of the early part of the century in particular, are often very different in form and shape and concern from what we think of as the “short story.”  They are often elaborately framed, with their kernel presented as a kind of oral performance: a tale told by one character to another.  And they frequently deal with the fantastic and unlikely, the improbable, the unbelievable; marked by a sense, not of the typicality of what they describe, but of its exceptional nature.  So how, by the end of the century, did the story come to concentrate instead on the mundane and the ordinary?  What happened to all the fantasy—where did it go?  And what is the relation of the “short story” to other kinds of short fiction, like the fairy tale or the German Novelle

 Those are some of the questions we’ll work at, and to help us we’ll read classic critical accounts by Frank O’Connor and Walter Benjamin.   But the heart of our work will be in reading story after wonderful story, a kind of greatest hits of the genre.  Gogol’s “Overcoat,” Kleist’s “Marquise of O,” Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper,” Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” Hoffmann, Maupassant, Merimee, Chesnutt, Hawthorne, Turgenev, …the list goes on, a mix of individual masterpieces and more extended looks at a few writers.  We will read some storytellers who aren’t well known in English, look at the source material of several operas, and even read a bit of Sherlock Holmes.   We’ll start with a cycle of stories by Goethe, his “Conversations of German Refugees,” which is modelled on (though much briefer than!) The Decameron.  These stories were already already old-fashioned in their day, and self-consciously so, stories based in anecdote and unlikely happenings, and with plenty of ghosts; a collection in which the frame narrative is concerned above all with the truth-claims of fiction and the question of what makes a story worth telling. And we’ll end with another cycle, Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, a century—and several narrative worlds—away.  


The particular writing assignments will depend on the size of the class; expect something between 15-20 pages.