The Nature of Novellas


The Nature of Novellas


Michael Oliver



            Novellas show us time that feels like fate.  This has to do with choices that are made.  But first it has to do with character.  It takes a man or woman of great soul to summon fate to suddenly appear.  Novellas show us fate begins in freedom, but it ends in chains of consequence, not seen till things are fully set in motion, and then something strange begins to happen:  time becomes the driving force of fate.  If there were time . . . but time is running out . . . These words might be the motto of novellas.  Often fictions treat time with contempt, as nothing more than passing days and years – a person’s age, a nation’s chronicle.  But in novellas time is palpable,   a law we feel as causes and effects, a force that lifts the characters with promise, but might also dash their dreams to pieces.  In novellas time comes to an end – upon the shoreline of eternity, or in the dust of death or death-in-life.   Novellas end because they follow fate.

Novellas give us visions of ideas.  Not abstractions but embodied thoughts.  It is the nature of this incarnation that is problematic for the reader.  If a fiction is reputed for ideas, artfully imparted through the text, it is assumed the plot and characters contribute to the meaning of the story – even more so is this true of setting.  Symbolism is invoked and tested. All must undergo interpretation.  Such a reading is called allegory, and it takes the tale as something else.  A character becomes a type of person.  Actions are examined and explained, religiously or psychologically – or nowadays as politics and culture.  Settings are regarded as mere signs.  But all of this is too much like a game.  To paraphrase MacLeish’s famous phrase, a proper story should not mean but be.  Novellas are read best as anagogy.  Their ideas show us states of being at the limits of reality, like final causes that perfect pure forms.  The characters are sui generis, existing in coincidental pairs.  Their interaction makes the main idea.  One is free – the other one is fate.  The story always happens just that way.  The setting is the best or worst of worlds.  In anagogy life is ultimate, not something else but what it truly is.  To know ideas thus as anagogy readers must transcend the changing world to see what happens in eternity, where Dr. Jekyll must hate Mr. Hyde, where humble Ethan must love ardent Mattie, and where one old man must fight the sea.  To read novellas is to realize how poetry instructs philosophy.  Novellas show us what ideas are, and then they show us how ideas end.

Novellas focus on the form of fiction.  They keep in mind, and make us realize, the action has a certain destination and a predetermined unity.  One scene will be repeated like a dream, and it will haunt the action till the end.  To see the story whole and from distance – to reflect upon it as a work of art – is something that novellas need from us.  This overarching formal expectation makes novellas swift and elegant.  There is no dawdling and prevaricating, and no time to pause and be amusing.  When we read them, we are forced to think, instead of merely being entertained through obtuse laughter or through empathy.  Novellas always fly toward an end, the ultimate fulfillment of their form that follows both from choices and from fate.  In this respect novellas are like dramas, being both dynamic and suspenseful.  All dramatic stories have two endings: one is right; the other one is wrong. A romance first ends wrong and then ends right. A tragedy ends right and then ends wrong.  To see what happens when this order falters think of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where neither ending is available.  Novellas end – it does not matter how – and nothing new will happen afterward.  Free choice is finished; fate is now triumphant.  By their form novellas illustrate the ineluctability of truth, and they are sometimes purely beautiful.



 Essential Readings on the Novella


Gerald Gillespie. “Novella, Nouvelle, Novella, Short Novel? – A Review of Terms” I-II. Neophilologus, 51, no. 1 (1967), 117–127; 51, no. 2 (1967), 225–230.

Judith Leibowitz.  Narrative Purpose in the Novella.  The Hague: Mouton, 1974.

Ian MacEwan,  “Some Notes on the Novella.”  The New Yorker, October 29, 2012.

Howard Nemerov. “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel.”  The Graduate Journal, 5, no. 2 (1963).  Rpt. in Howard Nemerov, New and Selected Essays, 56-71. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985

Mary Doyle Springer.  Forms of the Modern Novella.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.