Thinking about how short stories work, and don’t, it struck me that one common technique is to use ambiguity to wrong foot the reader into believing one thing when its opposite is in fact the case, or prompting an assumption that will be revealed as having been false.
Two favourite stories sprang to mind, both by Rudyard Kipling. Both are among his later writings, in the aftermath of the First World War. In the much maligned and misunderstood Mary Postgate, criticism has been that Kipling was in ‘hate mode’ as his eponymous heroine savagely pokes a bonfire while gloating over a dying German airman. Kipling, earlier in the piece has told us explicitly that the airman’s nationality is in ‘no doubt’. It’s a simple statement of truth: ‘There was no doubt as to his nationality.’ Mary Postgate makes an assumption about that nationality and so do we perhaps, even despite clues in the text. And in the case of this notorious story those assumptions have continued to be made for a century!
The second story, collected almost ten years later, in 1926, is The Gardener. Here, early in the tale, another seemingly simple, true statement is made: ‘Everyone in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all the world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child.’
It’s the opening sentence of the story, and heads up a paragraph of truths that tell less than the whole tale, but, re-interpreted, imply all of it.
In both these stories a large part of the powerful charge that each story carries is based on the unravelling of the assumptions we make in light of what Kipling has revealed and has concealed by. As I write, other stories by other writers both later and more recent spring to mind in which such deceptions are practised successfully and to great effect. We project ourselves on to the stories, are fooled by the surface details beneath which the true shape of the story lies, and jump to conclusions.
But it’s a technique that can go badly wrong, and not only by the possibility that we do not jump! I’m thinking of Daphne du Maurier’s story The Old Man. In this story a series of cleverly worded statements lead us through the first person narrative with a sustained delusion that ‘the old man’ is what the words suggest he is. At the end of the story our folly is revealed, and, though the parallel truth is equally convincing, the deception, and, arguably, the story, seem nothing more than a device to showcase the author’s ‘cleverness’ with words. Clever, in common English usage, can be a loaded word, implying the trickster rather than the simply very competent and I use it with that load here. Kipling’s use of the technique deepens our understanding of ‘the human condition’. Du Maurier’s, in this case, might leave us feeling cheated, and for no good reason.
Yet it remains a fundamental technique of the story: to lead the reader through falsehood to epiphany, and for that falsehood to be of their own construction. Done, not to display the word skills of the writer, but to reveal the prejudices and assumptions of the reader it’s a powerful tool, and one which hones the reader’s skills in proportion to the subtlety and finesse with which the writer is using it.