Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Two Famous American Short Story writers double team the world's second best short story writer

"The Story of a Farm Girl" by Guy de Maupassant (1884, 9 pages)
"War" by Sherwood Anderson (1921, 6 pages)
"The Girl and the Habit" by O. Henry (1905, 5 pages)

Whose Story is Best?

Guy de Maupassant (1850 to 1893-France) is often listed, behind Anton Chekhov, as  the second greatest short story writer in the world.    He certainly was one of the most prolific with over 250  stories to his credit.     O Henry (1862 to 1910-USA) is famous for his "surprise ending" short stories like "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Magi".    He is very much an American writer and the leading annual American short story award is named for him.     Sherwood Anderson (1876 to 1941-USA) is most famous by far for his linked collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio.    Readers of O Henry like his work, they chuckle at the ones with good endings, where readers of Anderson love his work and are shocked by the sheer depth of his seemingly simple stories.   Today, just for fun, I will look at a story by each of these writers (not their best but I will explain why I picked them) and decide which one has the most merit and give some reasons.

"The Girl and the Habit" by O. Henry is third best, no way around this he is out of his class here.   "The Girl and the Habit" is set in a restaurant in the financial  district in New York City.    O Henry does a good job of describing the restaurant and its clients.   Most of the trade is at lunch and most of the customers are men who work in the area.   The cashier is totally beautiful.   All of the men flirt with her as they pay their checks.   She puts them off in a friendly bantering way that O Henry shows us.   How he does it is OK but could be better done.   One day a wealthy financier passes out in the restaurant.   When he wakes up the first thing he sees is the beautiful cashier.   He and his wife ending up adopting her and training her in all the social graces and she dreams of a lofty marriage.   They give her classes to refine her speech so she sounds like she is strictly upper class .  Then one day she is at a big charity even where earls and dukes  are in abundance.   She has been assigned to a both where she will sell items for charity.   An earl who she and her new parents want her to marry comes up to pay her for an item.   The girl does as a total flash back and speaks to him in her best "streets of Ne York" accent and when he asks her to dinner treats him just like she did the patrons in the restaurant.   As you read the story you are pretty much waiting for the surprise ending.   I found it a bit flat, the characters are one dimensional and the social satire kind of weak.   Not a horrible story but not close to "high art".     I read this story because it was one of the stories of the day at East of the Web:  Short Stories.

"The Story of a Farm Girl" by Guy de Maupassant is our second place story.   It goes into some detail about the farm woman who is the central character in the story.   As we meet her  she awakes from her nap in the barn to find she is being molested by Jacques, one of the farm hands.     She pushes him away and then they go for a walk together during which Jacques declares his love and says he wants to marry her.    She falls in love with him based on this.   When she finds she is pregnant and reminds Jacques of his promise he tells her he just said that to get her into bed and laughs.    Compressing a bit, he shortly disappears.   She has her baby at her mother's house (who dies when the premature baby is born) but she gives it to a neighbor to raise.    She returns to the farm and is a tremendous farm manager in dealing with vendors and such.   The widowed farm owner offers to marry her.  She says no, then He rapes her and then she agrees to marry him.   Six years go by and they have violent fights because she never gets pregnant and he wants a child very badly.    After a very bad fight she tells him she already had a six year old child.   The man is overjoyed and says he wanted to adopt a child since they have not had one.   All the fighting is forgotten and they are both totally happy now.   This story made me feel sympathy for the woman but  it is too sentimental and the ending does not seem right.   I am not sure what to make of rape as prelude to marriage, if it was normal or not but I have read enough of de Maupassant's stories to know he has a thing for robust women with large breasts.    You can easily find this story online.

"War" by Sherwood Anderson (from his collection The Triumph of the Egg) shows us that there is for sure more to Anderson than Winesburg, Ohio:  A Group of Stories of Small-Town Ohio Life.   I think it is clearly the best of these stories.

Pretty much every one who reads Anderson likes his work but some are, I think, put off  from reading his work by the setting of his stories.  "War" is set on a train in the USA.   The time is the years right after WWI.    There are two characters basically in the direct story (there is a story within the story-not easy to do well in six pages but he does).   One is an American man and the other is a Polish woman with a bad facial injury who is sitting near him on the train.   He talks to her a bit, she is traveling with a man who is asleep, and she learns the woman is a refuge from the war in Europe.   She begins to tell the story of how she escaped from Europe.    During the war, she was part of a group of refugees who were being directed toward a camp by a fifty year old German professor drafted into the war efforts.    In a very strange event  open to various readings the man gets into a terrible fight with a quite old refuge woman and seemingly their spirits cross.   The woman takes on the role of the man and the man acts just as the woman had done.   He says over and over he just wants to be left alone and will not move.   The old woman takes tight control of the refuges and leads them on and the man stays behind.   In the confusion the Polish woman and her lover steal some paper work and end up escaping to America (no details given as to how they do this).    I think this is the best of the stories as it does not try to force an emotional response from us.   It makes us think about what really happened during the transfer of spirits in the fight.   "War" is a deep look into how a conflict changes the lives of a few people who never wanted any changes in the first place.   I was happily lead to read it when it was the short story of the day at (they have 1000s of short stories on hand and good reading suggestions also).   Anderson makes his characters come to life by showing us small details about their faces, their clothes and such.   He does not tell us how to feel about what happens.   There is great power in what he leaves out

This not meant to suggest that Anderson is a better writer than de Maupassant for I do not think that at all.   Of de Maupassant I think you either have to get some help to find and read his best or just accept you will read some stories that are just formulas and some that are wonderful.

I am always happy to get suggestions for short stories I might like.

Mel u


CHE said...

I absolutely agree with you about Maupassant,his talent was very erratic. Some of his stories are the most beautiful I've ever read and some make you wonder what he could have been smoking when he wrote it:)
I'm going to look up all three of these stories and read them although the O Henry one does seem familiar.

Mel u said...

Che-de Maupassant needed the money he made from his stories so he wrote, I guess, even when not really inspired but he knew what would make his publishers and the public happy-you are very right-thanks as always for your comments and visits