Monday 5 January 2009

Short Story, Novella, Novel

We can distinguish short stories, novellas, and novels, by their length. But that distinction doesn't tell us anything psychologically. For an answer, I think we go to Frank O'Connor (1963, see our Books on the Psychology of Fiction by clicking here) who argued that the modern short story is a recent invention, which is most typically characterized by something happening to a person who exists on the edge of ordinary society. It may be about a moment around which the person's life turns. For the reader it is a glimpse seen somewhat from that edge, a piece of insight into an issue that is critical to the character, and by extension to human beings. In the novel, by contrast, one enters a world with many and varied characteristics, in which we come to know in some depth, perhaps by identification, one or more characters who become, if not companions, people in whom we are interested as their plans and actions unfold. Whereas often a short story is about being on an edge, a novel usually allows us to become immersed in a world so that it becomes normal to us. The novella is distinct from these forms in that, although it allows the same kind of immersion as the novel, it is not about a variegated world, but a world in which a psychological issue is singled out, with other aspects pared away.

Often listed among famous novellas in chronological order are Aphra Behn's (1688) Oroonoko, Charles Dickens's (1843) A Christmas Carol, Robert Louis Stevenson's (1886) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kate Chopin's (1899) The Awakening, Anton Chekhov's (1900) In the ravine, Joseph Conrad's (1902) Heart of darkness, Thomas Mann's (1913) Death in Venice, Franz Kafka's (1915) Metamorphosis, Ernest Hemingway's (1952) The old man and the sea, George Orwell's (1945) Animal Farm, Muriel Spark's (1962) The prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

As to theme, we can state it easily in Kate Chopin's The awakening: What would it be for a woman to realize she is not cut out to be a wife and mother? The theme in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is: What would it be if we were each divided into a socially responsible part and a socially irresponsible part? In Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness, the theme is: Are civilized manners and behaviour merely a thin veneer?

Conrad did much to develop the novella. Although not as well known as Heart of darkness, even better in many respects is The shadow line. Its psychological theme is: What is it to cross the line from youthful confidence and self-absorption to adulthood? I have added a mini-review in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction, which you can access by clicking here, and a longer review in our Book Reviews archive, which you can access by clicking here.

Joseph Conrad's The shadow line is an exploration of that moment of the development of character when one knows one is no longer just alive for oneself, no longer just one of the crowd, but must take responsibility for other people. It is a line one crosses when one enters a serious relationship and starts living with someone, when one has one's first child, when at one's work one is put in charge of others. The psychological poignancy of the transition is that one often has no idea what the implications will be, because there are aspects for which one's youth has not prepared one. This is a transition that can enable one to grow, or that can damage one. The shadow line, based on Conrad's own youth, seen from a somewhat ironical perspective of his maturity, is about a young ship's officer who achieves his first command: a sailing ship that becomes becalmed, and in which almost all the crew become so sick with a fever that has been taken on board at a tropical port that it becomes impossible to work the ship. Was the young man too hasty wanting to put to sea? Why did he not inspect the medical supplies properly? Will the ship be wrecked? Will he and those for whom he is responsible be able to reach port safely?

Joseph Conrad (1917). The shadow line. London: Penguin (current edition 1986).

Frank O'Connor (1963). The lonely voice. New York: World Publishing Co (reprinted 2004, Melville House).

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