Though the literature of English does not have the history or depth of the German novella tradition, American and British writers also wrote novellas, of course. Most of these novellas use an informal first person narration, and frequently use a classic German framing device. The plots are generally built around unusual events that seem to have happened, and are, on the whole, thematically concerned with change. A few examples: Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, published in 1853 and in book form in 1856, demonstrates a baffling and destructive employer-employee relationship set in an American whose hierarchy and economy were undergoing a period of growth and solidification. Henry James’s Daisy Miller, first published in 1878, shows how changes in American society and the growing accumulation of wealth come into conflict with Old World values of aristocracy. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, first published as a book in 1902, shows the social limits of imperialism, and the beginnings of its demise. The traditional framing device used in Heart of Darkness, the narrator’s account of Marlow’s tale to his listeners aboard the boat in the Thames, parallels Marlow’s search for Kurtz. In A River Runs Through It, published in 1976, Norman Maclean explores a family tragedy in an American West that is undergoing environmental degradation and loss. Although the family tragedy is the main focus of the novella, the narrator emphasizes that he is telling a story about a place in the midst of a transformative period of change. Don DeLillo’s Pafko at the Wall, first published in 1992, juxtaposes two significant, simultaneous events that took place in the fall of 1951: the public revelation of the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, and the special playoff game to determine that year’s National League pennant (the game that famously ended with Bobby Thomson’s game-winning home run, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”). Unusually, DeLillo uses an omniscient third-person narrator in his novella, moving around the stadium to show the game from different points of view, all the time focusing on the event and the implied transformations that stem from it.
Many of the theories developed in Germany were used in British and American literature, and still inform our conception of contemporary fiction; most importantly, the fact that a narrative—a short story, a novel, a novella—is about something that happened. An event, a happening that might be wondrous or unprecedented or remarkable—or maybe just a strange instance of tomfoolery. In Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills claims that a short story “tells of something that happened to someone” (1), and the same is apparently true of the novella: something happens to a character that sets off a train of incidents that culminates in a decisive moment of change for the character—or not (the lack of change can also be decisive). This can be reduced to a five-step paradigm:
1. Life is going along for the protagonist.
2. The story begins.
3. Things happen in the story.
4. The story ends.
5. Life goes along—but it’s different, because of what happened in the story.
A classic illustration of the short story paradigm is found in a story I often teach, Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.” The story begins as young Nick Adams gets in a boat and crosses a lake with his physician father. The doctor delivers a baby. They find that the baby’s father has committed suicide. They go back across the lake—and Nick’s life, his perception of life, is changed. It’s different. Though every literate person can probably come up with exceptions to this paradigm, I think it nonetheless holds true for the vast majority of short stories. While actions take place in stories, they are usually too simple to constitute a plot; while there is certainly no plot to “Indian Camp,” it remains an exceptionally powerful story. Like other short stories, it derives its power through psychological insight, precise detail, and overall compositional concision. But even a complex short story, a story that attempts to depict the main thrust of a character’s entire life and has many different actions in it—Thom Jones’s “The Pugilist at Rest,” for example—is concise, achieving its purpose in a relative handful of pages.
“The Pugilist at Rest,” a story narrated in the first person begins in 1968 in Marine Corps boot camp, follows the narrator through to Vietnam, shifts up to the present (the story was published in 1992), back to the narrators post-Vietnam garrison duty, slips into brief essays on ancient Greek boxing and the history of epilepsy, and ends in the present, with the narrator struggling to decide what to do with his life. It is a complex, shimmering, circular narrative that focuses on the themes of loss and guilt and redemption, and seems very removed from the simple linearity of “Indian Camp.” Yet it is undeniably a short story: it concentrates on the psychology of the individual—in this case, an individual who struggles to achieve a level of balance and grace. The situation the narrator encounters—life in the Marines in the late 1960s—is presented not in a larger societal context but as a personal crucible in which the narrator’s personality is developed and tested. The story achieves that elusive quality of “depth,” but it is a personal depth rather than a situational or social one.
Novels focus more on the relationship between the individual and society. An example here would be The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve seen several times listed as a novella, apparently because of its relatively short length (just under 50,000 words). But it’s not a novella, not really. It’s a novel that deals with the relationship between the narrator, Nick Carraway, and the society he finds himself in, represented by Tom and Daisy and Gatsby and the rest. Nick is constantly observing and learning, measuring his life and values against the lives and values he encounters. This focus on society, I think, is a novelistic approach; the looseness of compositional space allows Fitzgerald to stretch out and portray a specific time and place.
In A History of the German Novelle, E. K. Bennett says:
The novel, described graphically, advances in a definite direction from one part to another. This line along which it moves need not absolutely be a direct one, and indeed rarely is; it can twist and turn, pause, spread itself out, loiter, only its general direction must be towards the point which is its aim (6).
Though this is a somewhat antiquated description of the novel—it was published in 1949—I like it for its description of the elasticity of the novel’s compositional space. With its practically unlimited space, the novel can go almost anywhere. The novella, with its more constrained compositional space, is necessarily more limited in its scope. Bennett quotes German novellist Paul Heyse;
The particular charm of this literary form [the novella] consists in the event being sharply outlined in a restricted framework…herein differing from the wider horizon and the more varied problems of character which the novel spreads out before us (quoted in Bennett 13).
While the contemporary short story, due it its brevity, offers only a glimpse of the character’s internal life, and often, if not usually, has an open and ambiguous ending, the novella, with its somewhat greater length and depth, can aim for a greater sense of narrative completeness. Like a short story, a novella’s protagonist has his or her life changed by what happens in the novella; but the “things that happen” in the novella—the actions—are connected, are deeper and more complex, and they in fact often (though not always) constitute a plot. I hold that it is this element of depth that is the defining element of the modern novella, not length.