“New lamps for old, new lamps for old….”–story of Aladdin’s magic lamp

Did I mention that I’m a sucker for picking up old books that still have great reading value, whether at free book give-aways, low cost second-hand stores, Amazon.com Marketplace sellers, and anywhere and everywhere that people will give me a good book on the cheap that I think I might want to read?  “Want to read” is the key element here; I’m not really a “first edition book” kind of person.  Well, a few weeks ago, I picked up at my local library (which has both a free book shelf  and books for sale) a great short story anthology which is really not that old.  It was published in 2007.  I would encourage anyone interested either in teaching a beginning literature class to others (or simply to themselves) to get it.  It’s called The Story and Its Writer:  An Introduction to Short Fiction, and is edited by Ann Charters from the University of Connecticut.  I have it in the 7th edition (sorry, I don’t know if it’s been re-issued yet).  In this wonderful book, there are not only the same old short stories from the standard literary canon (“canon” in this instance refers to a body of literature which is well-established in both popularity and critical quality);  the book also features stories by more recent authors who are quickly enlarging the canon by leaps and bounds with their fine fictions.  In many instances, the stories are matched with one or several related stories, commentary, or casebook entries by the same or another author.  At any rate, if you are unable to get this book due to where you live (outside the U.S.) or due to scarcity of copies, I would still like to recommend the two stories I will be discussing briefly today, both by Kate Chopin.  I’m sure they may also be found elsewhere, though getting her comments on Maupassant may take a bit of digging in a bookstore or library.

First of all, if you read Chopin’s somewhat lugubrious novella The Awakening, whether you liked it or hated it, I want to warn you that her short stories are very different in nature from her novella.  The two stories, “Désirée’s Baby” and “The Story of an Hour,” though both written with her fine, sure touch, are clearly influenced by the French male writer Guy de Maupassant, and a brief commentary on de Maupassant’s works, written by Chopin, is in the commentary section of the anthology.  What she shares most with de Maupassant is not only the ability to condense the average emotive incident into strikingly full “moments of truth,” but also a skill at delaying the key event until the end:  she is obviously an accomplished writer when it comes to the surprise ending.

The first story I’ve mentioned by her, “Désirée’s Baby,” only about 4 pages long, is set in the American South of the Antebellum period, when slavery was still in its heyday.  The story concerns the events taking place which are centered upon what people do and say in an atmosphere where the birth of a new baby or presence of an orphan on a plantation leads to speculations about bloodlines.  I won’t give the ending away, except to say that the ending is ironic (you may remember that I discussed what is and isn’t ironic in an earlier post this week).

The second story, “The Story of an Hour,” is also ironic, and is even shorter (about 2 pages, as if the author was signalling the intensity and brevity of time with the length of the story itself).  Here, the irony is guided by the fact that we are inside the main character’s mind and awareness by means of a partially omnniscient/partially indirectly discoursed narrative:  we understand her as the other characters do not, and the surprise ending centers upon their misunderstanding of her feelings.

As Chopin says of de Maupassant in her commentary, “It was at [a] period of my emerging from the vast solitude in which I had been making my own acquaintance, that I stumbled upon Maupassant.  I read his stories and marvelled at them.  Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making?  Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and saw with his own eyes; and who, in a direct and simple way, told us what he saw….it [is] genuine and spontaneous.  He gives us his impressions.”  More than this of the two stories and the commentary I leave you to read for yourselves, and I hope you will.  The story of de Maupassant’s which I think of most immediately upon reading Chopin is (I believe) called “The Diamond Necklace,” or “The Necklace,” a very well-known story indeed.  I mention it in case you’ve read it, so you’ll have an inkling of what to expect from Chopin (and also, you may find yourself delighting in the stories of de Maupassant too once you have read her).

So, the next time you happen to visit a free or used or remaindered book shelf, keep your eyes pealed for one of those “lamps” (books, in this metaphor) which light us along our way like this one did me.  You may find a treasure like I found, which kept me from having to choose between “new lamps” and “old lamps” because it had both historically traditional and newly traditional stories.  No one should have to choose only one!

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