The short story is a specific literary type. It is something between a novel and an anecdote. It is actually a prose narrative that deals with some affair of human life in a compact and concise way. Precision and brevity in all matters are the golden rules of a good short story. The short story has all the characteristics of a full-length novel-plot, characters, situations, and the mode of expression. But it is specifically different in all these matters from what is seen in a novel. As Hudson states so finely, it is that which can be read at a single sitting. Though brevity is its chief feature, a short story is found to bear some other distinctive marks such as the singleness of impression, paucity in characterization, the economy in detail and description, and so on.
Somerset Maugham is a reputed short story writer. The Lotus Eater is quite an impressive short story from him. It well reveals not merely his art of story-telling, but also the special features that distinguish the modern short story as a particular literary type.
A short story, as the very name signifies, is short and the implication is that the tale here must be briefly told. Maugham’s The Lotus Eater, for instance, is definitely a short tale covering some fourteen pages. Or course, in length it is much longer than Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly or James Joyce’s Araby. Nevertheless, the story here is nothing long or elaborate, and much shorter than Forster’s The Eternal Moment.
The short span of a short story, as implied, calls for the brevity of the theme, which also implies the unity of the plot. The Lotus Eater has a single theme–the story of a man who forsakes his life of work and wages to enjoy absolute leisure and pleasure for twenty-five years in the bosom of nature in the ideal realm of Capri. The central character of the story is Thomas Wilson, and the author presents the three stages of his life in a perfectly symmetrical order. As the story is told by him, in the first person, the unity of the plot-structure is well retained through his own account of Wilson’s life as a bank manager, his leisurely, delightful life of ease and comfort at Capri and his tragic suffering, after the lapse of twenty-five years, and death. These are all perfectly unified, Thus the oneness of the plot is well retained by Maugham, and the story never runs out of the bound of the hero, Wilson, whose story is kept well-knit by the narrator.
The brevity of its theme naturally involves the restriction in the portraiture of characters in a short story. It is absurd, rather abnormal to have a galaxy of men and women as in Dickens’s novels, in a short story. Maugham’s The Lotus Eater has very few characters, mainly three, the hero Wilson, the author himself, and his friend. Of course, references are made to the friend’s wife, Wilson’s maid, and her husband and the hostess of the inn, but they have no positive role or function in the action of the story.
The limited span of the short story naturally makes it imperative to observe the utmost economy in dialogue as well as description. In Maugham’s The Lotus Eater, the dialogue is very brief and pointed, although in some cases Wilson is attributed rather a long speech. The author’s description of the natural beauty of Capri, his reflection on Wilson’s life and fate are precise and exactly according to the need of a good short story, intended for producing a lasting impression in a short space.
It is, however, this impression that forms the main criterion of a good short story. What is the impact left, the emotional excitement roused by the short story? The Lotus Eater leaves a lasting impression of the tragedy of a man who at least knows his mind and suffers in his lust for life and leisure in the bosom of nature. There is something fine and original in the very conception of this character, and the cathartic effect is well achieved at the destruction of a character, so fine and innocent, mainly because of his own hamartia which becomes almost the nemesis in his tragedy, no doubt earned at the cost of his own happiness for a specific span of time.
Also read: Discuss Joseph Conrad’s The Lagoon as a short story