The Short Stories

3 The Short Story

The Short Story

A General Introduction

It would be impossible to find someone in this world who at some point in life has not heard a story. The ubiquitous story has made its way into all cultures and traditions cutting across all geographical boundaries. Stories have been told and passed down from time immemorial, from generation to generation, from place to place from century to century. The tradition is probably as old as language itself. The beginnings can be traced to the need in humans to share their experiences. Hence a necessity was felt to relate one’s experiences and give them a narrative form. The same takes the shape of story telling. In all primitive cultures this is how myths and legends too were passed down from one generation to another. As the stories were transmitted orally they inevitably carried a strong sense of the teller with them and all successive narratives were embellished with the mark of the teller’s personality and his history. When these myths and legends, this folklore was developed, sophisticated and written down, it took the form of the earliest known written narratives like The Old Testament, the Greek and Roman myths, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata and the Gilameshepic.

Stories might have been present in our cultures since pre-historic days yet the short story as a distinctive genre is as recent a phenomenon as to have the Oxford English Dictionary include a formal definition of it only in 1933. The last hundred and fifty years or so have witnessed a steadily growing popularity of this genre in several countries all over the world. The growth of the story in its written form has been undoubtedly facilitated by a phenomenal increase in the publication of periodicals, journals and magazines. A genre as popular as the short story, should have been able to attract enough critical attention to keep pace with its popularity. Yet it was not so. As mentioned earlier, no formal definition of it existed in the OED before the year 1933. Discussions pertaining to the form of the story and about its distinctive features had begun in Europe almost a century before the OED’s formal definition. A need was felt to address such questions as to what is a short story. Is it any story that is short or does it have some distinguishing qualities? How is it different from a novel? Only in terms of its length and breadth or are there other differences as well? Does the genre have rigid specifications or does it allow an overlapping with other genres? How long is short and when is a story not a story? Such were the questions that gradually began drawing the attention of writers, readers and critics alike. More so because a need was felt to distinguish it from other kinds of prose narratives that also told stories but could not be fitted into the category of the short story.