By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Family plays an important part in much fiction, of course, but sometimes the short story form has offered us an insight into family life that the longer novel does not. Because it can only provide us with a few snapshots, or a handful of moments, perhaps even just one episode in a family’s life, the short story concentrates many of the aspects of family into just ten or twenty pages (sometimes fewer).
Katherine Mansfield, ‘Prelude’.
‘Prelude’ is one of Katherine Mansfield’s longest, and finest, short stories. Centring on the Burnell family as they move house in New Zealand, ‘Prelude’ is the opening story in Katherine Mansfield’s first ‘mature’ collection of fiction, Bliss and Other Stories (1920), although the story had first been published two years earlier.
Because ‘Prelude’ is a modernist short story, the emphasis is on character rather than plot, as is also often the case with James Joyce’s short stories or Virginia Woolf’s short fiction. Mansfield is using the Burnells’ house-move, and the period when they are busy settling into their new home, as a situation around which she can make a number of local observations about family, women, and class, among other things.
Katherine Anne Porter, ‘He’.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote just one novel and fewer than thirty short stories, yet she is regarded as an important twentieth-century American writer, with ‘He’ among her most celebrated and critically acclaimed works. An important theme of Porter’s work is the search for meaning in a modern and increasingly materialist world.
This 1927 story is about a poor American family. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son best of all: a boy who is identified only as ‘He’ and who appears to be mentally and physically weak.
Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Signs and Symbols’.
‘Signs and Symbols’ is a short story by the Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), originally published in the New Yorker in 1948. The story centres on an elderly married Russian couple who are immigrants to the United States; their son is suffering from paranoid delusions and has been confined to a sanatorium. ‘Signs and Symbols’ focuses on their thwarted attempt to visit their son and its aftermath.
John Steinbeck, ‘The Leader of the People’.
This short story by John Steinbeck (1902-68), the final instalment in the longer work The Red Pony, brings together three generations of the same family in order to observe the changes that America (and in particular, California) has undergone since the late nineteenth century.
The story is about the son of a ranch owner who looks forward to a visit from his grandfather, the titular ‘leader of the people’ who enjoys regaling people with tales of his role heroically leading a group of people across America to the west coast.
‘The Leader of the People’ deserves close analysis to show how Steinbeck cleverly uses symbolism to summon this clash between the past and the present, between the grandfather’s nostalgic view of the wagon crossing he led decades ago and the here-and-now in which the younger generations live.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Down at the Dinghy’.
This is a short story by J. D. Salinger, originally published in 1949. As in some of Salinger’s other stories, notably ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, ‘Down at the Dinghy’ involves an adult speaking to a child. However, in this case the theme of the story – which remains largely in the background until the end of the story – is anti-Semitism.
The story is about a young boy who runs from home and goes down to the nearby lake, where he gets into a dinghy and refuses to speak to his mother.
‘Down at the Dinghy’ also involves the conversation between two of the family’s servants, one of whom has made derogatory remarks about the father of the family (as well as his son). The story ends with the mother being reconciled with her son and bonding with him over his dinghy.
Ray Bradbury, ‘The Veldt’.
‘The Veldt’ is a short story by the American author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), included in his 1952 collection of linked tales, The Illustrated Man. The story concerns a nursery in an automated home in which a simulation of the African veldt is conjured by some children, but the lions which appear in the nursery start to feel very real.
‘The Veldt’ can be analysed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, especially when it threatens the relationship between parents and their children.
Amy Tan, ‘Scar’.
‘Scar’ is the story of An-mei Hsu, one of the inset tales included in Amy Tan’s 1989 book The Joy Luck Club. One of the shortest stories in the book, ‘Scar’ is largely plotless, and takes as its focus a Chinese-American woman’s memories of her childhood in China, where she was raised by her grandmother and her mother was considered an outcast because she left her husband for another man.