Understanding Fiction: A Qualification


I should have mentioned before that most of the stories in the 1st edition of UF are famous, and all of them are by famous writers. (One of the criticisms of the 2nd or 3rd edition is that Warren started putting his own stories in.)

The next story I read in UF was “The Furnished Room” by O. Henry. My heart sank when I reached the end and felt that it was a stupid story, one I would’ve been harsh to in a write-off. Here I’d just advised you all to go out and fight over the handful of cheap copies on Amazon, and now it was going to praise this lousy story.

But it didn’t. The editors threw that story in the mud and stomped on it, and showed why it was stupid, which I hadn’t figured out: It had the makings of a good story, but O. Henry botched the character development, so that the character’s crucial action wasn’t sufficiently motivated, and, trying to fix it, tacked on a twist ending that only made everything more confused by resolving an already-troublesome ambiguity in the wrong direction.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

I also began to notice, as I read further, that the editors kept building as they went, comparing each story to some of the ones before it; it seems they were selected carefully to present different views of a few basic problems.

But I also ran into an annoying feature: The book was written for teachers, and so it often has questions at the end of each section. This would be fine if they were the sort of questions that have no definite answers, but it seems they are questions that the editors already have a specific answer in mind for. And sometimes they ask the most important questions about the story, ones I can’t figure out, without answering them. What is the significance of — in “The Man Who Would be King”? Is any revelation of character accomplished by withholding from the reader the knowledge that the action in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is —? Does the fundamental meaning of “The Necklace” depend on the loss of the jewels? I don’t know! Tell me!

This is because teachers like to have their books provide questions so they don’t have to think of any. I find this irritating. Usually the questions are only a small part of the story interpretation, but for “The Necklace” there were only the questions.


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