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The axe and the tree – Short story genre and Modernism

The dull noise of a blade meeting a tough surface reached his ears. He got up and rushed out. He saw four men hacking the massive trunk of the old margosa tree. He let out a scream: ‘Stop that!’ He took his staff and rushed at those who were hacking. They easily avoided the blow he aimed. ‘What is the matter?’ they asked.
Velan wept. ‘This is my child. I planted it. I saw it grow. I loved it. don’t cut it down…’
‘But it is the company’s orders. What can we do? We shall be dismissed if we don’t obey, and someone else will do it.’
Velan stood thinking for a while and said, ‘Will you at least do me this good turn? Give me a little time. I will bundle up my clothes and go away. After I am gone do what you like.’ They laid down their axes and waited.
Presently Velan came out of his hut with a bundle on his head. He looked at the tree-cutters and said, ‘You are very kind to an old man. You are very kind to wait.’ He looked at the margosa and wiped his eyes. ‘Brothers, don’t start cutting till I am really gone far, far away.’
The tree-cutters squatted on the ground and watched the old man go. Nearly half an hour later, his voice came from a distance, half-indistinctly: ‘Don’t cut yet. I am still within hearing. Please wait till I am gone farther.’ (107)

The axe, in R.K. Narayan, Malgudi Days, Penguin Classics Edition, 2006

Notes: The short story genre is a very fascinating exercise in style. The author manages to set a solid relationship between the reader and the character(s) of the story, within a few pages only. It is interesting to consider this genre in a modernist perspective, as an experimentation and a break of conventions, but still a rigorous practice in its formal effects and its use of epiphany.

Use of repetitions : a stylistic pattern from the modernist era

In Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, “he could not feel” (86), “he could not feel” (87), “he could not feel” (87), “but he could not taste, he could not feel” (88), “he could not feel” (88), “he felt nothing” (90).

In Gertrude Stein, Melanctha, “Rose Johnson was a real black (…) negress. She laughed when she was happy” (47), “Rose Johnson was a real black negress” (47), “Rose laughed when she was happy” (47).

In William Faulkner, As I lay dying, “It wont balance. If you want it to tote and ride on a balance, we will have” (96), “it wont tote and it wont ride on a balance unless” (96), “it wont balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have” (96).

In Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time, “the burned-over country” (133), “burned off the ground” (133), “at the burned-over stretch of hillside” (133), “watched the trout” (133), “he watched them” (133), “Nick watched them” (133), “He watched them” (133), “as he watched” (133).

In these four works Three Lives, (1909), In Our Time (1924), Mrs Dalloway (1925), As I lay dying (1930), the authors use a common pattern of repetition. The examples chosen above are representative of this stylistic use so typical of modernist writers. It seems to reflect obsessions that characters embody, whether it be the absence of feeling for Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway, the negro race identity in Melanctha, the coffin and its technical features for Cash in As I lay dying or the sense of sight for Nick and the destroyed land after the war in In Our Time. We can notice that Gertrude Stein was using this repetitive device in 1909, that is to say before WWI and that Faulkner, in a very modernist perspective, kept using it in 1930, in the interwar period. This stylistic pattern allows the reader to enter the character’s mind and to share his/her obsessions and fears.

A strong, emancipated woman

“Dis sittin’ in de rulin’ chair is been hard on Jody,” she muttered out loud. She was full of pity for the first time in years. Jody had been hard on her and others, but life had mishandled him too. Poor Joe! Maybe she had known some other way to try, she might have made his face different. But what that other way could be, she had no idea. She thought back and forth about what had happened in the making of a voice out of a man. Then thought about herself. Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered. Perhaps she’s better look. She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taker her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there. She took careful stock of herself, then combed her hair and tied it back up again. Then she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see, and opened up the window and cried, “Come heah people! Jody is dead. Mah husband is gone from me.” (87)

Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. (88)

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Harper Perennial Editions, 2013

Realization of a Condition

Like a ray of light shooting through the darkness, the recognition of his position, the significance of his lot dawned upon him. It illuminated the inner chambers of his mind. Everything that had happened to him traced its course up to this light and got the answer. The contempt of those who came to the latrines daily and complained that there weren’t any latrines clean, the sneers of the people in the outcastes’ colony, the abuse of the crowd which had gathered round him this morning. It was all explicable now. A shock of which this was the name had passed through his perceptions, previously numb and torpid, and had sent a quiver into his being, stirred his nerves of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste, all into a quickening. ‘ I am an Untouchable ! ‘ he said to himself, ‘an Untouchable ! ‘ He repeated the words in his mind, for it was still a bit hazy and he felt afraid it might be immersed in the darkness again. Then, aware of his position, he began to shout aloud the warning word with which he used to announce his approach : ‘ Posh, posh, sweeper coming. ‘ The undertone, ‘ Untouchable, Untouchable, ‘ was in his heart ; the warning shout, ‘ Posh, posh, sweeper coming ! ‘ was in his mouth. (52)

Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Editions, 1935

Notes : Realization of his condition, his social status in the Indian’s society, his identity, his caste. Use of an extended metaphor of light/darkness to represent the realization/ignorance of his identity. Focus on the senses and perceptions. Character abruptly brought back to reality of his condition, endowed with confusion between what he says and what he feels and thinks.

Modernist style

CASH

“I made it on the bevel.
1. There is more surface for the nails to grip.
2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.
3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up-and-down.
5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
6. Except.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
8. Animal magnetism.
9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress come slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on the bevel.
10. You can see by an old grave that the earth sinks down on the bevel.
11. While in a natural hole it sinks by the center, the stress being up-and-down.
12. So I made it on the bevel.
13. It makes a neater job.” (82-83)

William Faulkner, As I lay dying, The Modern Library Editions, 2000

Notes : Chapter that displays Cash’s obsession with the coffin. It  reflects the character’s personality and  inner thoughts.  Faulkner is modern is his style and  use of different forms, such as this listing. Chapters as multiple perspectives. Use of repetitions still distinctive in this novel, as a way to express the characters’ inner obsessions.

Multiple-voice reencounter

” And how are you? ” said Peter Walsh, positively trembling; taking both her hands; kissing both her hands. She’s grown older, he thought, sitting down. I shan’t tell her anything about it, he thought, for she’s grown older. She’s looking at me, he thought, a sudden embarrassment coming over him, though he had kissed her hands. Putting his hand into his pocket, he took out a large pocket-knife and half opened the blade.
Exactly the same, thought Clarissa; the same queer look; the same check suit; a little out of the straight his face is, a little thinner, dryer, perhaps, but he looks awfully well, and just the same. (40)

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway, Harcourt Editions, 1925

Notes : The scene features the reencounter of Clarissa Dalloway with Peter Walsh. The readers are thrown into the characters’ thoughts, with two alternate points of view. If our previous study of Hemingway’s  In Our Time revealed the emotions as shown and not told, here we can really tell how the process of writing differs, for the emotions are carefully depicted by Virginia Woolf. In The Common Reader, she explains : “In the vast catastrophe of the European war, our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry or fiction.” These shifts of points of view is significant of the author’s wish to break with the realistic Victorian novel.

Manhood Vs. Death

They hanged Sam Cardinella at six o’clock in the morning in the corridor of the county jail. The corridor was high and narrow with tiers of cells on either side. All the cells were occupied. The men had been brought in for the hanging. Five men sentenced to be hanged were in the five top cells. Three of the men to be hanged were negroes. They were very frightened. One of the white men sat on his cot with his head in his hands. The other lay flat on his cot with a blanket wrapped around his head.
The came out onto the gallows through a door in the wall. There were seven of them including two priests. They were carrying Sam Cardinella. He had been like that since about four o’clock in the morning.
While they were strapping his legs together two guards held him up and the two priests were whispering to him. “Be a man, my son”, said one priest. When they came toward him with the cap to go over his head Sam Cardinella lost control of his sphincter muscle. The guards who had been holding him up both dropped him. They were both disgusted. “How about a chair, Will?” asked one of the the guards. “Better get one,” said a man in a derby hat.
When they all stepped back on the scaffolding back of the drop, which was very heavy, built of oak and steel and swung on ball bearings, Sam Cardinella was left sitting there strapped tight, the younger of the two priests kneeling beside the chair. The priest stepped back onto the scaffolding just before the drop fell.

Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time, Scribner Editions, 2003, Chapter XV (143)

Notes : Interchapters turn out to be the very best of Hemingway’s collection of short stories. Most of the vignettes deal with war concerns, bullfighting and murder and the characters are often confronted to death. This interchapter XV is relevant for its way of featuring manhood and fear, two significant topics for the author. In 1952, Ernest Hemingway will write in The Old Man and the Sea : ” A man is not made for defeat… a man can be destroyed but not defeated”.

The bull of Death

“Maera lay still, his head on his arms, his face in the sand. He felt warm and sticky from the bleeding. Each time he felt the horn coming. Sometimes the bull only bumped him with his head. Once the horn went all the way through him and he felt it go into the sand. Some one had the bull by the tail. They were swearing at him and flopping the cape in his face. Then the bull was gone. Some men picked Maera up and started to run with him toward the barriers through the gate out the passageway around under the grandstand to the infirmary. They laid Maera down on a cot and one of the men went out for the doctor. The others stood around. The doctor came running from the corral where he had been sewing up picador horses. He had to stop and wash his hands. There was a great shouting going on in the grandstand overhead. Maera felt everything getting larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then it got larger and larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then everything commenced to run faster and faster as when they speed up a cinematograph film. Then he was dead.” (131) – Chapter XIV

Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time, Scribner Editions, 2003

Discovery of the Body

“The body which lay in the bath was that of a tall, stout man of about fifty. The hair, which was thick and black and naturally curly, had been cut and parted by a master hand, and exuded a faint violet perfume, perfectly recognisable in the close air of the bathroom. The features were thick, fleshy and strongly marked, with prominent dark eyes, and a long nose curving down to a heavy chin. The clean-shaven lips were full and sensual, and the dropped jaw showed teeth stained with tobacco. One the dead face the handsome pair of gold pince-nez mocked death with grotesque elegance; the fine gold chain curved over the naked breast. The legs lay stiffly stretched out side by side; the arms reposed close to the body; the fingers were flexed naturally.” (8)

Sayers, Dorothy, in Whose Body, Dover Editions, 2009

Sick in his heart

” He drank another cup of hot tea and Fleming said:
– What’s up? Have you a pain or what’s up with you?
– I don’t know, Stephen said.
– Sick in your breadbasket, Fleming said, because your face looks white. It will go away.
– Oh yes, Stephen said.
But he was not sick there. He thought that he was sick in his heart if you could be sick in that place. Fleming was very decent to ask him. He wanted to cry. He leaned his elbows on the table and shut and opened the flaps of his ears. Then he heard the noise of the refectory every time he opened the flaps of his ears. It made a roar like a train at night. And when he closes the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel. ”

” Sitting in the studyhall he opened the lid of his desk and changed the number pasted up inside from seventyseven to seventysix. But the Christmas vacation was very far away: but one time it would come because the Earth moved round always. ”

” He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.
Stephen Dedalus
                                       Class of Elements
                                       Clongowes Wood College
                                       Sallins
                                       County Kildare
                                       Ireland
                                       Europe
                                       The World
                                       The Universe
That was his writing: and Fleming one night for a cod had written on the opposite page:
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
                                       Ireland is my nation.
                                       Clongowes is my dwellingplace
                                       And heaven my expectation. ”

James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Oxford World’s Classics, 2000 (p10, 11, 12)