The best modernist stories selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
A number of modernist novels are praised as among the greatest novels of the twentieth century: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, to offer just three examples. But modernist fiction had its origins in the short story form, and many of its finest statements about art and the world are to be found in short stories. Below we introduce seven of the most definitive and must-read modernist short stories. Would you add any authors or stories to this list of the best modernist short stories, or would you substitute any of our choices for a different story?
1. Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Garden Party’.
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was the one writer Virginia Woolf was jealous of, according to Woolf herself. Mansfield never wrote a full-length novel, but wrote a number of classic modernist short stories. This story, from 1920, is probably her most famous: it focuses on a young woman, Laura Sheridan, whose family is holding a garden party at their home in New Zealand. Shortly before the guests arrive, tragedy strikes: one of their neighbours from the poor part of the village dies in an accident.
The story is told in a spare, simple style, but with moments of trademark modernist features: in particular, stream of consciousness and the idea of the ‘epiphany’ or moment of consciousness. We’ve offered a short summary and analysis of ‘The Garden Party’ here.
2. James Joyce, ‘The Dead’.
The concluding story in Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, and by far the longest story in the book, ‘The Dead’ is widely regarded as one of the greatest modernist short stories ever written. It tells of a husband and wife’s night out at a New Year’s party, and the ‘epiphany’ or conscious realisation that the husband, Gabriel Conroy, experiences as they arrive home at the end of the night. Joyce was one of the great modernist stylists, and every detail here is ripe with suggestion and connotation.
3. Virginia Woolf, ‘The Mark on the Wall’.
I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) called for a more impressionistic style of writing that focused on the ‘spiritual’ life of the mind rather than the materialist details of a person’s life. She put forward this view in a short essay called ‘Modern Novels’ (1919).
‘The Mark on the Wall’ puts such an idea into practice: this short tale focuses on the musings of a narrator who is sitting in a room and trying to figure out what the mark on the wall is. This starting-point leads into another thought, and then another – showing the ‘stream of consciousness’ that many of our minds follow in an average day.
Woolf wrote ‘The Mark on the Wall’ in 1917, while the First World War was still raging; it’s the earliest of her ‘mature’ and most recognisably modernist short stories. The story was conceived partly as an escape from the wearisome process of writing her second novel, Night and Day (1919), which, like her first novel, began to gesture towards a new modernist technique but hadn’t quite arrived there yet.
We have analysed this story here.
4. Anton Chekhov, ‘Gusev’.
Although perhaps not Chekhov’s very finest story, ‘Gusev’ shows how the Russian master of the short story helped to anticipate and, in a sense, create the modernist short story in the late nineteenth century. ‘Gusev’ (1890), which focuses on the conversation of a group of soldiers aboard a boat travelling to Russia, was singled out by Virginia Woolf as an example of the new impressionistic, ‘spiritual’ and psychological way of writing which she herself was to embody so consummately in her fiction.
5. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’.
In many ways, ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ was the story that made D. H. Lawrence’s name. Published in 1911 in a magazine edited by the writer Ford Madox Ford, ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ focuses on the mixed feelings experienced by a miner’s wife after her husband goes missing and, following the news that he has been killed in a mining accident, her feelings about his death and her reassessment of their marriage.
The story is a fine illustration of Lawrence’s concept of ‘apparent formlessness’, where a seemingly unstructured story actually evinces tight control but has the appearance of reflecting the messy realities of ordinary life.
6. Joseph Conrad, ‘The Secret Sharer’.
Conrad’s stories and novels can be linked with the adventure story genre, especially the colonial and imperial romances of hugely popular late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers like H. Rider Haggard. But whereas Haggard is a pure storyteller offering adventure and plenty of action, Conrad is more concerned with questioning the very nature of storytelling and examining our perceptions of the world – including how we perceive reality. ‘The Secret Sharer’ (1910) is narrated by a man who saves the life of another man found drowning in the sea, only to discover that the rescued man was guilty of killing fellow crewmates on board his former ship. The moral questions Conrad’s story throws out remain explored, but without any definitive answers being proposed. Was the narrator right to help the man? Was it murder or was the killing of his fellow crew-members actually, oddly, a moral act?
7. Henry James, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’.
I pass rapidly over the question of this unmitigated tragedy, of what the loss of my best friend meant for me, and I complete my little history of my patience and my pain by the frank statement of my having, in a postscript to my very first letter to her after the receipt of the hideous news, asked Mrs. Corvick whether her husband mightn’t at least have finished the great article on Vereker. Her answer was as prompt as my question: the article, which had been barely begun, was a mere heartbreaking scrap …
This story has variously been described as a satire on literary criticism and simply ‘a joke’. It is narrated by a rather odd and self-absorbed critic for a fictional newspaper; this narrator is told by a leading novelist, Hugh Vereker, that he – Vereker – has concealed a ‘secret’ within all of his fiction. Every one of his novels contains this secret which, like a thread in a Turkish carpet, has been so carefully woven into the fabric of the novel that only the most careful reader will find it. The story that ensues is part mystery, part detective story, part exposé of the worst aspects of the literary world.
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ invites numerous interpretations, many of them equally plausible. Is it a satire on the relationship between authors and critics, whereby James is mocking those critics and reviewers who aren’t really interested in understanding an author’s work, but merely want to advance their own careers? Is it a satire on the vogue for popular fiction in the 1890s, such as the hugely successful detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and James – in withholding the solution to the riddle, and suggesting that there may not even be a solution – is deliberately playing with readers’ expectations concerning the detective story?
We have analysed this classic story here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.