The Short StoryIn Western culture, the history of the short story is rooted – as is all fiction – in the oral tradition. In preliterate cultures, stories were told around the campfire as a way of passing on the people’s history and culture. Stories told in ancient Greece celebrated the feats and lives of mythical gods and ancient heroes that reinforce Greek religion and philosophy. The more famous of these were developed into epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Such tales tell us about people from another time – their lives, culture, and heroes.
Shorter tales used animals or everyday events to illustrate a moral or lesson in the form of a fable (such as the Aesop's fox and his 'sour grapes'). Today we can see traces of the fable in cartoons and comics.
The parable (such as the parable of the "prodigal son" related by Jesus in the New Testament) is more difficult to spot in contemporary media, but sermons and political speeches frequently use them, and newspaper and news program "human interest stories" are often, in effect, parables – brief narratives that illustrate a moral or illuminate an admirable characteristic.
In reading parables or fables, we get to know only a little about the main character. Whether it's a fox or a prodigal son, the character’s primary purpose is to support the moral of the story. But this focus of a tale or parable illustrating a moral changed as the Western world evolved. Today, modern stories reveal more about how people act and how the main character changes or doesn’t change.
During the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe established a critical theory for the short story form that defined it as a separate genre, distinct from the novel in more than length. It was Poe who emphasised the idea that a short story should give a single impression and should be of a length that allowed the reader to read it within an hour. From Poe's early definition, it's only a small step to a definition of the short story as we know it today – a brief narrative that focuses on a single incident or character and treats it so concisely that the reader is left with a dominant impression.
It is this brief narrative form that you find today in popular magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, as well as the Sunday supplement of many newspapers, various literary journals, and anthologies, as well as on this website.
Contributed by Gifford, Katya
27 May 2002