The following are short stories that provide ample material for analyzing narrative elements, character identity and motivations, and the role of voice in the construction of the story. Each of these stories is stronger in some elements than others, but they all offer enough material to explore every concept as a whole.
“Bigfoot Stole my Wife,” by Ron Carlson
This is a highly accessible story that puts narrative voice to the forefront: the aim of the work is to make the voice noticeable and draw attention to its unreliability. Students in the past have readily apprehended the nature of the point of view and its impact on the story. Nevertheless, being as short as it is, this story doesn’t offer much for analysis beyond the simple techniques for highlighting the story’s narrator. This does offer promise as a story model that students can use for creating their own voice from the very beginning.
“Birdsong,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a delightful story of a woman who has a somewhat one-sided love affair. The interesting thing about this story is how the narrator seems to grow as she narrates her experiences. This is not necessarily a coming of age story, but it offers for analysis the idea of how a voice grows over time. The story also offers different voices through the narrator’s interactions with her best friend, who has a very different dialect and point of view. In this case, students can study the voice of the story teller and the voices in the story itself.
“Cathedral,” by Raymond Carver
Impossible to ignore. Very clear narrative voice and sophisticated development of an epiphany. Students will be tempted either to sympathize with the narrator or reject his attitude toward his wife and guest. This story adds complexity to the question of voice, as it is a later, reflective voice telling events when he had a very different attitude toward and interpretation of events. Clear voice, difficult interpretation, but a lot to discuss and explore. Forces students to address the question: do I have to make the narrative voice likeable, and what happens if I choose not to?”
“Miracle Polish,” by Steven Millhauser
This is the story of a man driven to madness by a polish that makes you appear more attractive in the mirror you use it on. It’s a confessional story with not only an unreliable narrator, but a hint of magical realism: either the narrator is telling the truth and he is partaking of a rather ambivalent miracle, or a latent maniacal tendency is driving him to madness. This is an intense short story with moments of beautiful, tragic writing that serve well as a model where an author is clearly creating a persona to speak his story.
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allen Poe
This story has the benefit of the likelihood that students both have read it in previous classes and possibly actually used the text as a study of voice. Again, the intensity of the situation and psychological drama provides ample material for a study of how the story is told affects the reading experience and aesthetics as a whole.
“Araby,” by James Joyce
This is a subtle, potentially difficult but worthwhile example of voice. Students can be encouraged with this text to notice where the narrative attention lies: what details are included, and what isn’t noticed? What does this suggest about the priorities or disposition or influencing pressures on the narrator’s identity? The dispassionate account of the narrator’s journey invites students to read the text more closely than a more emotive narrator would necessarily demand. Note: the next story in Dubliners, “Eveline”, can serve as an interesting foil, presenting the same kind of story from third person point of view.
“Magic Man,” by Sheila Kohler
I almost hesitate to include this work because it deals with the sexual assault of a young girl. The story is important for two reasons: first, it is an excellently crafted work that invites some serious discussion about issues of crime and loss of innocence, but more importantly the story is told from third person perspective with the voice of a child. The tragic event is told through the eyes of a child, showing how a third person voice is hardly objective, and by limiting the voice to the naive worldview of a child, the author can create a profound effect on the reader. We often talk of what to add to a voice to make it sound authentic, but this story draws attention to what we might want to take away.
“Bride,” by Julia Elliott
Another story told in third person with a voice mirroring the protagonist, this story about a nun living in severe circumstances also experiments with a limited voice. Instead of the naivete of a child, Elliott constrains the narrator to a narrow religious ideology. The outlook of the narrator makes extraordinary acts of renunciation, penitence, and self-violence seem mundane, and the decisions to reject the world in favor of a religious ideal so natural that it becomes unsettling. Valuable in many ways, this story also does a good job showing the value of narrative limitations.
“Blind Jozef Pronek,” by Aleksandar Hemon
Jozef Pronek experiences the isolation of an immigrant to America as he finds himself removed from his community only to attach himself to a romantic interest and the people who share his general location (painters, her boyfriend, etc.). What is interesting about this story is its subtlety: it seems as if the third-person narrator is distant and objective, but when students analyze what details the narrative rests on, and
the narrative decides to focus on them (for instance in times of emotional isolation or fear) or when the narrative cuts off and gives no information about his thinking or emotions (as seeing destruction in his home country leads to a simple conversation causes him to lose his employment), it recreates the experience of the protagonist for the reader. It uses narrative to show Jozef’s breaking heart without ever describing his heart breaking. The important elements of focus here, for the students, is the power of selecting what to describe and what to gloss over as a narrator.
The Story of the Four Little Children Who Sailed Round the World, by Edward Lear
This is a delightful children’s narrative filled with nonsense and absurd situations. It has surprising academic value, however, in how the nonsense is crafted and the implications of what is represented. For the purposes of this assignment, it is an excellent contrasting voice to the often grave, realistic narrators of literary fiction. It’s also a story filled with humor, and how a voice can make the reader laugh is a worthy subject of the unit’s analysis.