THE SHORT FICTION OF ELIZABETH GASKELL (NINETEENTH-CENTURY PROSE, TALES)

MARIE D BACIGALUPO, Fordham University

Abstract

Mrs. Gaskell's short fiction, a substantial but largely neglected body of more than thirty works, belongs to a genre distinct from the single-focused, economically constructed modern short story. The canon is properly viewed in relation to the expansive nineteenth-century novel, which accommodated a variety of visions, and to the eighteenth-century moralizing essay.^ In the moralizing tradition, Mrs. Gaskell points the way to familial harmony with "Hand and Heart" and "Bessy's Troubles at Home," and dramatizes the Biblical injunction to forgive one's enemies with "The Sexton's Hero" and "The Heart of John Middleton." Distinguished among the moralizing tales is "Half a Life-Time Ago," where the use of dialect yields genuine pathos.^ The canon encompasses a sensational strain. Tales like "The Old Nurse's Story" combine suspenseful action with Gothic plot embellishments; others, like "Morton Hall," feature the historical adventure and sweeping scope suggestive of Scott. Also represented are crime melodramas such as "A Dark Night's Work," which examines at length the diffuse effects of a single violent act.^ In addition, the short fiction gives expression to the Victorian nostalgia for an earlier gracious culture uprooted by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the merchant class. The conflict of disparate values provides a source of humor as well as pathos in "My Lady Ludlow," which poignantly depicts the effects of social upheaval on the fading nobility while delighting us with delicately satiric portraits of Old World gentlewomen.^ In the pastoral mode, "Cousin Phillis" implicitly contrasts the abiding serenity of a lifestyle bound to nature with the grasping restlessness of an urbanized Age of Progress. Transcending its historical context, this flawless tale of innocence confronting worldliness realizes the capacity of nineteenth-century short fiction for timeless expression.^ Underscoring the versatility of nineteenth-century short fiction in general and Mrs. Gaskell's art in particular are "Lois the Witch" and "Curious If True." The former is a historical tale that documents the fateful convergence of forces resulting in the Salem witch hunts; the latter, a fairy tale fantasy that weaves a network of cultural allusions and sensory images reflecting Mrs. Gaskell's unifying vision of time and humanity. ^

Subject Area

English literature

Recommended Citation

BACIGALUPO, MARIE D, "THE SHORT FICTION OF ELIZABETH GASKELL (NINETEENTH-CENTURY PROSE, TALES)" (1984). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8506315.
https://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8506315

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