Imagining Intrigue: The Why and Wherefore of Pithy Prose
Most classic literature revolves around elements such as irony, symbolism, allusion, allegory, personification, or metaphor developed over an extended sequence of pages. Some of the lengthier examples being: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy requiring 1,225 pages to beset a universal voice, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens which prolongs the ilk over 952 pages, The Stand by Stephen King who ingeniously weaves a 1,153 page novel from a preceding publication. The aim for this examination of curt literature will be to take a more counterintuitive approach to typical viewpoints by covering narratives in a more cursory manner. The expectation being to delve swiftly and decisively into the overbearing themes within the plot and characterization. There are three works that are appropriate for this consideration.
The first is The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe which was published in the November 1846 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book. A stint of brashness between the two main characters leaves one entombed while the other recoils emphatically and triumphantly over an earlier spiteful exchange. Montresor quips, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” A provocative gesture between two acquaintances is coerced by means of alcohol and ends in a vindictive act of immurement. The title of the Poe narrative serves a dual purpose by indicating the means of entrapment as well as the victim’s improvised sarcophagus.
Despite the dejected air of the Gothic-addled plot, this emblematic composition has remained in print uninterrupted since the mid-nineteenth century, undoubtedly owing to the impressive category of publishers that marked its release. The first successful women’s magazine founded in 1830 by Louis Antoine Godey with a sizable southern United States circulation, Godey’s Lady’s Book offered literary pieces and articles on current events and popular culture. Under the 40-year editorial helm of Sarah Josepha Hale, the magazine swelled to over 150,000 subscribers setting a lasting impact on American culture by nurturing a collective historical consciousness. As an editor in Boston, Hale published a collection of poetry that included the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” which has persisted ever since. The publication made a lasting literary and social contribution in the US, allowing women to share their creativity and discuss issues that mattered exclusively to them such as traditional holiday recipes; all the while, reporting on events as they transpired in London. A popular feature of the magazine included columns devoted to garment design, sheet music, and short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to name but a few. Coincidentally, Holmes was an American jurist known for his concise opinions in matters relating to Supreme Court hearings. He is best remembered for being an influential judge and was honored equally by Great Britain and the US. Altogether, these efforts shaped American culture in ways still evident today—insofar as reaching a vital audience by every means is concerned.
The next is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson that debuted in the June 1948 issue of The New Yorker. The revelation of the peculiar practice of public execution among the residents of an otherwise prim and bucolic town stands to question an odd, yet historically vetted, form of human behavior. In hindsight, this town’s diversionary, delusionary, or customary act can be regarded as a gambling predilection gone awry, if only through a caricature of the title alone. However, it speaks to a broader social implication of the town’s predicament, as highlighted by John Donne’s Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
The literary works of another prominent author advances this point within the pantheon of American literature. Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway is considered the preeminent writer of short story. One classic novel of merit serves to reorient the controversial aspect of The Lottery. In the contemplative and metaphysical Death in the Afternoon written in 1932, Hemingway succeeds in conveying a human curiosity, on par with Jackson, differing only by relating the repugnant spectator sport of bullfighting wherein the animal meets a tragic end, or overpowers the matador and lives to fight again, merely in service to the onlookers. At the conclusion of the sport, neither survivor walks away with anything of value, apart from injury or worst, only to ritualistically embark on another encounter ad nauseam. Hemingway produced countless other abridged novels of which, ironically or appropriately enough, only the titles Winner Take Nothing and For Whom the Bell Tolls bear any burden on the running theme of this perspective.
Lastly, The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell was published in the January 1924 issue of Collier’s. An unanticipated island incursion is the catalyst to a marooned New York socialite being thrust into a race for survival. The dilemma is conjured by an aristocratic game hunter with a predisposition for human prey. The aristocrat meets his untimely demise not by fallibility nor feebleness, rather by the innate human resourcefulness of the hunted American castaway. General Zaroff remarks, “Instinct is no match for reason,” which ironically spells his ultimate undoing as the haphazard rivalry unfolds and ceases abruptly when the unsuspecting guest prevails. This stands as a blasé indication of the consequences to living vicariously and precariously on both the part of the New York socialite and the Russian aristocrat. Furthermore, General Zaroff muddles to the target before him, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life.” Seldom does being stranded on an unforgiving island not jar an individual’s composure; for the exception, words such as these will undoubtedly succeed in light of the viciousness to follow. After sordidly defeating the General, his servant Ivan, and a pack of ravenous dogs, Rainsford takes his prize of sleeping in the General’s own bed, as emboldened by Zaroff’s premonition, “This is a most restful spot,” uttered at the opening of the novel. A contradictory, deceptive, prophetic; if not, allegorical statement about the island’s secret and the unpredictable end to the inhabitants.
The NBC Blue Network began a radio broadcast of Collier’s features in an attempt to resolve a longstanding publishing rivalry against The Saturday Evening Post. The Collier’s Hour aired from 1927 through 1932 as radio’s first anthology of serialized articles and stories, eventually adding music, sports and news into the hour long time slot. The founder, Peter F. Collier, immigrated to the United States from Ireland at the age of 17. Collier began his publishing career in books; then, independently in the magazine market. His book venture sold in excess of 30 million copies from 1900 to 1910 while his magazine stake surpassed 250,000 in circulation due in part to a partnership that fortuitously incorporated photojournalism to the already seasoned elements of short story and radio production.
In conjunction with the conflict in question, each narrative incorporates a lighter side for the perpetrators within the plot, as well as the audience in general. Although Poe devotes much of the prose to the dastardly depiction of Montresor, a more exuberant alternative is presented in the carnivalesque atmosphere that occurs simultaneous to his impending attack. Even Jackson paints her narrative with a seemingly blissful, uneventful, and carefree day of sunshine just prior to the atrocious and ominous act forthcoming. Though seemingly out of place thematically, Jackson is not unique in using tranquility to exacerbate the climactic turmoil. In Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, the son Gregor is reduced to a tormented invalid by an inexplicable ailment as the family struggles and is absorbed by the tragedy that befalls them. When Gregor succumbs to the ordeal, the family conveniently recover enough to venture into the countryside for a day of serene nature and absolute solace, presumably oblivious to the missing family member. Aesthetically, Jackson situates ‘the calm before the storm’ in the beginning while Kafka belabors the effect to the end. More so, the oasis spectacle set forth by Connell occurs on a pristine, tropical island that could have better detracted the protaganist and antagonist from the imminent decision to perpetrate a mortal scuffle.
The meaning of life is that it stops—Franz Kafka
The insidiousness that transpires in all three succinct narratives is quelled by the more coaxing social, natural, and contextual elements that counterbalance the theme as it meanders through the minutiae of dialogue. In a more condensed manner, each storyline prods surreptitiously between cautionary title, discretionary verse and, above all, beleaguering conduct. Whereas the underlying nay periphery themes of religion, politics, morality, civilization, or lifestyle remain prevalent and foremost—the less protruding notions of drinking, gambling, and conniving indistinctly have a place among the texts. To a certain extent, the dramatic overture of the script flows into a myriad of possibility for further entanglement or recourse that would otherwise have required hundreds of pages. The fact that the texts have endured as classics, regardless of tone, attest to this distinction. Nonetheless, the paradigm that pertains to the literary dilemma raised heretofore is best asserted by Shoshana Felman: an American literary critic, Emory University professor emerita, and theorist. In Juridical Unconscious, Felman elegantly applies the notion of literature as a pragmatic substitute to social justice.
What indeed is literary justice, as opposed to legal justice? How does literature do justice to the trauma in a way the law does not, or cannot? Literature is a dimension of concrete embodiment and language of infinitude that, in contrast to the language of the law, encapsulates not closure but precisely what in a given legal case refuses to be closed and cannot be closed. It is to this refusal of the trauma to be closed that literature does justice.
The most influential play on the topic of injustice and revenge is Hamlet. All the layers upon layers of misdeed and mischievousness make it one of the longest stories to convey: requiring over 4,000 lines, as many as 29,000 words, and well into 4 hours to perform in its entirety. By comparison, a 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace was broadcast over BBC Radio in 1997; beginning early one morning and ending much later that night, stopping momentarily and exclusively for news reporting. With this in mind, it is no wonder that two ancient texts written by Greek poet, Homer, have remained largely recognized as longstanding classics, namely: Iliad and Odyssey. The latter boasts over 12,000 lines of poetic verse and is believed to have been written near the 8th century BC. The former spans over 15,000 lines to relate a more pronounced narrative of the events leading to and following the Trojan War. Both are regarded as pivotal to Greek and Western literature and while they speak to the breath of the theme in question, other Greek works devote more attention to the nature and essence of existence. In The Bacchae by Athenian playwright Euripides, the play focuses on the two sides of human nature: the rational side and the instinctual side. The performance conveys the near idyllic presence of mind achieved from the reconciliatory bond between man and his enemy, while not entirely precluding the menacing force that can prevail otherwise. By way of personification, both the chorus and the divine presence meld into a distinctive character within the play. This is the distinctive facet that marks The Bacchae as an exceptional ancient or modern tragedy. Two other Athenian playwrights, Aeschylus and Sophocles, are revered for artistically composing rhetorical elements within the Greek play in order to allow audiences to reflect on divine as well as dismal matters in anticipation of bestowing a cathartic experience, to no less resonant effect.
It may, as many great novels have shown, take hundreds of pages to entice a reader, but the other condensed category of literature reveals how the intent can be equally and effectively accomplished through a trifle of words, a convoluted agenda, and a smattering of literary devices. Of course, each author contributes their own specific brand of composition which may or may not elevate the final publication. The historical context or the emotional complexities that espouse the concept behind the narrative contribute to the substance and robustness of the story. In so doing, each novella portrays a tinge of admonition toward the absurdity and obscurity of certain points, people, or places. In the end, this microcosm of storytelling laconically embeds a unique strand upon the peril that awaits the readership at large—along the pendulum of time and beyond the margin of imagination.
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