Chapter 4: Part III
The Making of a Story by Francine Prose
1. Do you agree with Francine Prose’s conclusions about the best way to define a short story? Why or why not?
According to Prose, “unlike most novels, great short stories make us marvel at their integrity, their economy.” She describes rules or rather conventions and then debunks them, illustrating that “we know what a short story is, just as we know what it is to be afraid, or to fall in love.” In terms of the definition of a short story I agree with her, “we know what a short story is: a work of fiction of a certain length, a length with apparently no minimum.” Short stories follow certain conventions but that’s about all.
2. Can you think of any short stories that you love (or even like) that transgress all the so-called ‘rules’ of what makes for a short story?
I enjoy Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty but their short stories are to a large degree responsible for establishing the conventions of the short story. The convention that their stories typically transgress is the epiphany at the end. One of the stories I really enjoyed from this book is Denis Johnson’s Emergency which also lacks an epiphany.
3. Is there any more specific way to define the ‘sense of artistic whole’ that Prose talks about? Why or why not?
No I don’t think there’s really a way to define the ‘sense of artistic whole.’ I agree that as far as a short story goes there are only conventions but no clear definitions or rules. One day someone might break every rule in the book and create something marvelous and exciting in the process. The sense of the artistic whole is for the readers and critics to debate and decide after the story is written.
1. How do the opening paragraphs set the tone for the story? What is that tone?
Elliot’s drinking problem is mentioned within the first paragraph of the rather long story. “Old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs, but he did not drink.” The other paragraphs mention gray November day, childless Christmas and January blizzards. “In his mind’s eye he could see dead leaves rattling along brick gutters and savor that day’s desperation.” The tone is somber and sober, just like he is.
2. What purpose does Blankenship serve in the story? How would that story be different if he were not in it?
Elliot is a social worker and Blankenship is a client: “every time he got arrested the court sent him to the psychiatrists and the psychiatrists, who spoke little English, sent him to Elliot.” He is a person for whom Elliot feels more contempt for than even himself. If he were not in it than the reader might perceive Elliot as just a Debbie-Downer type of character, someone who likes to wallow in his own misery. But his work with Blankenship depicts Elliot as someone whose boredom and apathy about life is justified.
3. What are some of the ‘mysteries’ rendered powerfully in this story? (What things do you continue to wonder about after the story has ended.)
The reader is left wondering what will happen between Elliot and his wife, between Elliot and the skiing neighbor Anderson, and between Elliot and the man who threatened his wife on the phone. The story began and ended without much resolution and is written in a slice of life manner. Nevertheless, while the story leaves us with many mysteries they are not unfinished cliffhangers which make the author appear lazy about his writing.
4. What aspects about the relationship between the main character and his wife are surprising yet convincing?
She is angry about his drinking but not very angry since she doesn’t threaten to leave. She is resigned to Elliot as he is, probably because her own job as a child abuse attorney is so overwhelming and disconcerting. While both seem to love and care about one another they also appear resigned to the lives they lead. Everything is just the way it always was and will continue to be and that is a very convincing element in the story.