ENGL405 Study Guide

Unit 3: The Invention of the Short Story

3a. Explain Poe's argument in favor of the short story over longer works of fiction.

  • Explain Poe's argument in favor of the short story genre over longer works of fiction.
  • How does Poe describe the genre characteristics of the short story?

Poe favors the short story form because it lends itself to being read in one sitting. A reader can usually get through the entire story before having to put the text down to move on to another task. This allows them to retain the key aspects of the plot and appreciate the whole piece of art in one reading experience. He believes that the short story form, unlike longer works of fiction, can create a unified effect like poetry but can also benefit the author financially by reaching a larger audience. See "The Short Story" for more information.


3b. Relate the historical development of the short story during this period.

  • Relate the historical development of the short story during this period.
  • When did the short story form first develop?
  • How and why did it gain in popularity during this time period?

The short prose narrative has existed for nearly as long as humans have. Human beings process experiences in the form of short stories. Some even suggest that "small spatial stories" are the basis of all human thought and understanding of the world. Because of the growth of the periodical press at the time, the move into urban centers, the rise of common schools and the national literacy rate, and the expanding middle class, demand for and interest in short stories grew at a rapid pace during the American Renaissance. Readers were looking for interesting stories as well as entertainment. Revisit "The Short Story" for further explanation.


3c. Define the Gothic and analyze Poe's, Hawthorne's, and Melville's development of the mode.

  • Define the Gothic mode.
  • How did Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville help develop this important literary mode?

In literary studies, the Gothic mode usually refers to the emphasis on or exploration of the darker sides of human experience that are influenced by forces that are beyond one's control. These forces could be natural, supernatural, or even human behaviors that cause danger to the subjects of the work and inspire readers to examine their own darker sides and the forces that operate on them in the world. Many think that Poe wrote Gothic tales for financial gain, but he is often credited with contributing greatly to the formation of the Gothic form. He employs the form to explore ideas concerning human psychology and metaphysical existence. Hawthorne's stories are set in New England and usually investigate the complexities of Calvinist teachings surrounding innate depravity and the human reaction to judge others' behaviors. Melville also explores the Calvinist legacy, but he further blurs the line between the moral and immoral. For further insight on this topic, see "The Gothic and the Antebellum American Short Story".


3d. Analyze key examples of Poe's and Hawthorne's use of suspense and the macabre and explain how these Gothic techniques affect readers.

  • Analyze key examples of Poe's and Hawthorne's use of suspense and the macabre.
  • Make a list of specific Gothic techniques used by Poe and Hawthorne.
  • How do these Gothic techniques affect readers?

Poe used the Gothic mode, suspense, and the macabre to explore intense psychological states, especially the more destructive or violent emotions and motivations. He used the characters in his stories to explore the darker side of human nature that allowed one character to murder another. "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are good examples of this. These stories allow readers to put themselves in the position of the main character who murders another human being because of a progression of twisted logic that drives them to commit the crime. This insight into the psyche of a killer provides a provocative pleasure for readers. Hawthorne explores the complicated morality of the Puritan and Calvinist legacies in his Gothic tales. He helps readers see how to view themselves through the lenses of sin and innate depravity. For further insight on the Gothic techniques these authors use in their works, see "The Gothic and the Antebellum American Short Story".


3e. Summarize Melville's analysis of Hawthorne's "power of blackness", his Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin.

  • Summarize Melville's analysis of Hawthorne's "power of blackness", his Calvinistic sense of innate depravity and original sin.
  • How does Hawthorne revise the concept of innate depravity and original sin for readers at the time?

Melville praises Hawthorne's ability to discuss and investigate what he calls the "power of darkness" in his works. Melville posits that this darkness probably comes from Hawthorne's coming of age in a highly Calvinist-influenced society where concepts of innate depravity and original sin hung heavy over the community. Melville suggests that perhaps Hawthorne uses this darkness to provide more nuance between the light and shade of human behavior in works like The Scarlet Letter. He questions whether these concepts have any merit in antebellum society through the development of characters like Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Revisit this essay for information on how Melville characterizes Hawthorne's use of darkness.


3f. Describe key features of the detective story as first developed by Poe.

  • Describe the key features of the detective story as first developed by Poe.
  • What do these features lend to the reading experience of this genre?
  • How does Poe differentiate the detective story from the Gothic mode or the short story?

Crime fiction, or the detective story, was developed and perfected by Poe during this time period. He crafted a lead detective in the role of protagonist in the story, and it was through the eyes of this character that the reader entered into the seedy underbelly of violent crime. The crime in question was usually a murder because murders have been happening in society for as long as humans have been around and because there are infinite possibilities, motives, and intentions when developing a story of this type. The detective interacts with all manner of suspects and organizes the facts into rational order for the reader to follow along in the investigation. The detective story is a subgenre of the short story, but it does not always invoke the Gothic mode. While there can be suspense and macabre involved in the telling, ultimately, the detective story privileges the rational act of reconstructing a crime and the motive of the person(s) who committed it. Explore this essay on rationalism in the detective story genre for further insight here.


3g. Explore Melville's development of detective story elements in the context of slavery in "Benito Cereno" and evaluate how the genre lends itself to this kind of content.

  • Explore Melville's development of detective story elements in the context of slavery in "Benito Cereno".
  • Why does the content of this story lend itself so well to this genre?
  • What does Melville ultimately argue about slavery with this story?

With "Benito Cereno", Melville offers us a story about a slave rebellion; however, because of his prejudices and inability to read the signs on the ship he tries to help, Captain Delano does not know that a slave rebellion has taken place. This mystery, which the reader begins to figure out before Delano, lends itself to the detective genre because a "crime" has been committed, and it needs to be solved. Melville engages with the negative representations of African slaves that circulated in society at the time and illustrates how one can be blind to the agency and power and humanity of Africans because of long-held prejudices. See this essay on Melville's "Benito Cereno" to better understand how this story fits into the detective genre.


Unit 3 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that might help you with the review items above and some terms you should be familiar with to be successful in completing the final exam for the course.

Try to think of the reason why each term is included.

  • Short Story
  • The Gothic
  • The Puritan/Calvinist Legacy
  • Suspense
  • The Macabre
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Point of View
  • Detective Fiction
  • Rationalism
  • Novella