Professor Julie Iromuanya
17 September 2014
Contrasts in the Postmodern Short Story
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood, while not challenging in and of themselves, did have me questioning whether the postmodern short story can indeed be called story at all. Upon reading “Girl”, I hurriedly dismissed it as a non-story. A poem at best. A list at worst. Yet when I read “Happy Endings”, I was enthralled. And though I was enthralled I immediately recognized my own hypocrisy in placing value in one as story yet not the other. Why? What is explicit in each? How are they different? How are they the same?
And what are my biases in making this differentiation? “Girl”, is a rapid-fire-grocery list-run-on sentence presenting a mostly one way conversation between a mother and daughter. The mother is overbearingly relaying lessons to her daughter in order to allow her to grow into an adult respected as a ‘woman who the baker’
WILL ‘let near the bread’.(53) A woman, who in this sense, is viewed by the community as strong and serious. And while “Girl” certainly has a theme, it has no narrative. That is to say, there is no sequence of events. There is no beginning. There is no end. Aristotle wrote in
“Poetics”, his treatise on literary and dramatic theory, that, “A whole is what has a beginning, a middle, and an end”.(VII) But “Girl” is all middle. And because it is all middle, there is no dramatic arc, only a minute amount of exposition. There are characters, two, both unnamed and virtually undescribed aside from attitude. No setting, no climax, no resolution. Just a list. A colorful list but a list none-the-less. It is a ‘story’ that suffers from not enough elements of
Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”, on the other hand, is “Girl’s” complete antithesis
‘suffering’ from an almost embarrassment of riches when it comes to elements of story. There are five characters, an established setting(Canada), multiple beginnings and middles, but ultimately only one ending. Fortunately for us and Aristotle, one ending is one ending enough.
BUT, Atwood throws a proverbial curveball at the critical reader when she writes, with her final line, “That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try how and why”.(500) What is this treachery! I was on
YOUR side Atwood! And now you tell me that plot is overrated in deference to the ‘how and why’! “Girl” has no plot and an absolute abundance of how and why. In fact, as stated above, it is almost completely how and why. The how and why, while existing in “Happy Endings”, is thin even when at it’s fattest. For instance, in paragraph 11 of sub-story C, Atwood writes, “John on the contrary settled down long ago; this is what is bothering him. John has a steady, respectable job and is getting ahead in his field, but Mary isn’t impressed with him, she’s impressed by James who has a motorcycle and a fabulous record collection”.(499) This quote serves as an example that although we as readers are getting a litany of facts, we aren’t getting any type of emotional connection with these characters. At least