Tag Archives: Kate Chopin

May is Short Story Month, Part 1

Yes, there is an official “Short Story Month.” Who would’ve thought? As the honorific is designed to do, this writer of short stories (http://www.amazon.com/Halibut-Rodeo-Mark-Lewandowski/dp/0984421939/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1305732251&sr=1-1) has been thinking of the ones I like the most, the stories that become better with multiple readings. So I made a list, roughly in chronological order. In order to narrow down the choices (millions have been published, I suppose) I’ve limited myself to American ones. That’s okay. The short story is probably the most American of the literary genres, though story lovers, obviously, shouldn’t ignore de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, etc. I’ve also limited myself to one story per author.

So here goes:

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving. Most people know the premise of the story, even though few have read the original. That’s a shame, because it is a masterpiece of the form. It’s also a great story about food.

“The Birthmark,” Nathaniel Hawthorne. I once got in an argument about the ending of this story with a woman I was dating. I maintained that Georgiana doesn’t really die at the end, but ascends to heaven, just like Mohammed. She didn’t agree. We never went out again.

“Ligeia,” Edgar Allan Poe. Nobody manipulates the first person viewpoint better than Poe. There are typically two versions of a Poe story: the story as reported by the narrator, and the story as it actually happens. If you believe the narrator, “Ligeia” is a horror story. If you don’t, the narrator is a murderer trying desperately to cover his tracks. It’s not a horror story…

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville. This is probably my all-time favorite story. Many readers miss the point of the closing section. If you believe Bartleby prefers not to do stuff because of his experience working in the dead letter office, you are just as clueless as the befuddled narrator.

“A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett. I’m not sure if there is a better short story about a sexual awakening.

“The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin. One of the most read short stories in the English language. Short, sweet, and to the point. We now call stories like this “short shorts,’ or “flash fiction.” Surprisingly, not all readers get the irony at the end.

“The Blue Hotel,” Stephen Crane. The author didn’t write much before he died at the age of 29, but oh what a legacy. This story shows that the “Wild West” was romanticized decades before John Wayne started making movies.

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London. These days the author is held in higher regard abroad than he is at home. Funny how that works. Story shows that sometimes dogs are far smarter than men.

“Editha,” William Dean Howells. The author is known more as a critic and novelist than a short story writer, but “Editha” is a classic of anti-war literature. Every person who got caught up in post-9/11 war lust should read it. Apparently, George W didn’t.

“The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James. Like most of the author’s novels, this story is long and complex, and not much seems to happen. That’s the point. The last page is devastating.

To be continued…

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What’s the matter with women these days?

At Indiana State University we have a general education literature course with variable themes. My theme for this semester is “The Plight of Women.” Back in the fall a male student emailed me and asked if it was all right for him to take it. “Dude,” I said. “I’m a dude too, and I’m teaching the blasted course. Don’t worry. It’s not a class on dude bashing.”

Indeed. It’s often a course in women bashing. And not by this dude, or that dude. No, it’s more of a woman on woman slugfest.

I’m not sure if there’s a more maligned character in American Literature these days than Edna Pontellier, heroine of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” When the novel was published in 1899 Chopin was crucified by critics. (Those who like to rip Oprah Winfrey and her book club might want to remember how professional critics treated Chopin and Melville and Hurston and Whitman and etc. before they cast stones. If history is any indication, those little Oprah Book Club stickers might mean more to what becomes the literary canon than anything coming out of the New York Times Book Review.) I think “The Awakening” is a great novel, both to teach and to simply read. Over the past decade or so, I’ve found it more and more difficult to convince many female students of the novel’s merits. Why? They hate Edna. Who is this woman, complaining about her life? She’s relatively wealthy, her husband doesn’t beat her, she’s got kids. What’s her problem? She’s living the American Dream. That should be enough. But no, she doesn’t want to be married. She wants a room of her own, a place to paint and to listen to Chopin. How selfish. For a room of her own she abandons her kids and drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico. What a horrible person.

Nora, protagonist of “A Doll’s House,” gets the same response. Like Edna, she lives a comfortable life only to abandon it, along with her children, at story’s end. Many women in my class find the dumping of the kids the worst thing anyone could do. Edna is torn about it, too. Doesn’t stop her, but as her family doctor points out, the guilt is “nature’s way of securing mothers for the human race.”

More than twenty years ago, as a grad student, I taught composition at Wichita State. The department used a Dolphin Reader as a text. A couple times I assigned a Wendell Berry essay. I don’t remember which one, but like most of his stuff, it was about an appreciation of nature. Many of the females in the class found the essay incredibly offensive. One woman berated me for assigning it. Really? Wendell Berry? He’s as white bread as you can get. It wasn’t his admiration of nature that got to them. No. At one point in the essay he mentions his wife typed up his work. How dare he, the students argued. All this stuff about the wonders of nature and the dangers of technology, yet he turns around and forces his wife to type up and make presentable to potential publishers his crappy little essays and poems. What a dick, using his wife that way.

How things have changed.

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