I want to distinguish at the outset three types of prose narrative—novel, tale, romance—which are currently thought to be indistinguishable. The only difference now recognized among types of fiction is one of length, which can help us tell a short story from a novel and helped (once upon a time) to tell a short story from a short-short story. But I am not going to be dealing in these remarks with short stories as a separate class. Most of them fall under the headings I have just named. They can be divided into 1) abbreviated novels, 2) brief tales, 3) fragmentary romances. If the form has a definite character of its own, I have been unable to determine it.
Nor will I be dealing with the “novella,” which to me is only an affected name for a shortish novel or a longish short story. Originally, in Italian, it was applied to stories or “histories” like those in Boccaccio’s Decameron. In French, it became nouvelle, as in Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Here, as in the Decameron (though not in the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre), the little narratives tended to be licentious. In German, the Novelle, thanks to the Romantics, became a genuine form, with naturalization papers; in our time it was favored by Thomas Mann. But in English the word for short novel is novelette, which quickly became pejorative, meaning a rather cheap love story and giving rise to the damning adjective “novelettish” before passing out of use altogether. Nobody talks of novelettes any more.
Another class of prose fiction is the fable—from the Latin fabula, which in turn goes back to an ancient term fari, meaning simply “to speak”—the root, incidentally, of fatum, or “fate,” i.e., “what has been spoken.” I shall not be discussing fables either, though they did not go out with Aesop. The obvious contemporary example is Animal Farm, but I think 1984, a cautionary tale, must be a fable too, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, most of Golding, probably, also Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and quite a lot of science fiction.
Fables, with or without talking animals, are allegories—allegoria, the description of one thing under the image of another—and, whatever a novel may be, it is not an allegory. It lives in its own right; its characters are not personifications; their names do not refer to abstract conditions or qualities such as “Pilgrim,” “Everyman,” “Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy,” “Patience.” If a character in a novel is named “Krook,” as in Dickens’s Bleak House, this is not shorthand for a dishonest person—never. Mr. Krook with his rag-and-bone shop and his weird cat Lady Jane is something much queerer and more complex than that. And the statement I have just made—“A novel is not an allegory”—can be developed syllogistically, like this: “No novel is an allegory,” “X is an allegory,” “X is not a novel.” Apply it to a specific case: “1984 is a parable for our times. A parable is a form of allegory. No novel is an allegory. Therefore 1984 is not a novel.” Such little tests can be useful.
Adding to the confusion in this sphere is a tendency of reviewers to read no matter what novel as “a parable for our time”—at best an unctuous pronouncement, evoking the laying on of hands. But to try to read a true novel as an allegory does not deepen the meanings in it; rather the contrary. It leaches any meaning that is not didactic out.
Novel, tale, romance—these are the classes of prose narrative I shall be alluding to, and, before I can comment on some mutations in their current behavior, I shall have to make clear what those classes are or were. Of all these forms the tale is the oldest and maybe the most persistent. Unlike the novel and the romance, it is pre-literate in its beginnings, and something oral still clings to it, however sophisticated it becomes. A tale always has a teller and, around him, an implied circle of listeners, with the suggestion of a campfire. The teller is the guarantor of the tale’s authenticity, which is why he remains present even in late developments of the form such as Conrad’s “Marlow” stories, where the veteran ship’s officer spinning his yarn is more an ornament than a necessity for validating a far-fetched account. We would believe Lord Jim, I think, without Marlow’s attestation to the truth of it. But it is Marlow’s voice that reminds us that the story of the young, untried first mate and his instant of cowardice is not a novel but a tale.
The teller, I must add, now and then creeps into the novel, where he does not belong, but he functions there as a sort of Master of Ceremonies (Don Quixote) and quickly drops from sight. Whenever he creeps in (and it is important that you note this), even though he invariably appears as an “I,” a first-person singular, he is not the same as the “I” of an autobiographical novel like David Copperfield or even of a pseudo-auto-biographical romance like Great Expectations, whose hero, Pip, though he writes in the first person, is not Dickens himself when younger. The same could be said of Jane Eyre, another pseudo-autobiography: the lucky heroine (“Reader, I married him”), despite some points in common, is someone different from Charlotte Brontë, who had no Mr. Rochester in her life. The “I” of the tale, as opposed to the “I” of novel or romance, is never a participant; he is an observer, a witness who comes forward to testify to an event in itself unusual or even unlikely on the face of it. In Conrad’s tales, he may double or even triple, as though to give auditory perspective, like an echo: the author, Joseph Conrad (“I” Number One), hears a story from his old acquaintance Marlow (“I” Number Two), a trust-worthy commentator, and it may happen that Marlow, lacking firsthand knowledge of some part of the tale, relates what he has heard from still a third narrator. In principle, you could go on indefinitely, with infinite regression as in the picture on the old Quaker Oats box.
A strange light on the secret nature of the tale is cast by etymology. “Tale” in French is conte, in Italian conto, in Spanish cuento; in German it is Erzählung; in Dutch, vertelling. It is clear, to start with, that the Germanic words have a different linguistic root from the Romance-language words. And in most of these Western languages there is a separate word, often a more common one, for a narrative other than a tale: one, own “story,” deriving from the Latin for “history”; the French récit, German Bericht, Dutch verhaal, meaning literally “a report.” Now all the words for tale, even though they stem from two independent roots, have to do with counting, with adding up, or directly with the word for number. I will illustrate it in Italian: conto=”tale” and=also “bill” (“Il conto, per favore” in a restaurant); contare is “to count” and also “to relate.” Here it is in German: erzählen (to tell), Erzählung (tale), Zahl (number). And Dutch: vertelling (tale), vertellen (to tell), getal (number). There is the same thought buried in the English “recount” (“He recounted me a tale”). The teller of a tale, then, is indistinguishable from the teller behind the counter in a bank, who tells out your money, rapidly adding.
I find this deeply mysterious. What is it trying to say to us? Conceivably, it only points to a metrical origin of all formal narration: “Tell me not in mournful numbers.” “Meter”/”measure.” Verse, like cloth, is measured in feet. Yet that does not satisfy my curiosity, partly because human speech (the “telling” and “erzählen“) cannot have started out as verse but rather in grunts related to gestures—of pointing, for example. Perhaps the telling refers, rather, to a need for listing in orderly sequence evident in early narratives, intent on documenting a tradition. “These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood: and Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years and begat Salah….” Or the Homeric catalogues.
In any case it seems to me that the counting, the addition of particulars, implicit in those words for tale in so many different tongues must refer to the piling up of incident, the “And then…. And then?” that E.M. Forster speaks of in Aspects of the Novel but that applies in any narration. It applies, I feel, with particular force in the tale, where the anticipation of the listeners is keyed to a spoken narrative where incidents are doled out, as it were, one after another, like haricot beans, each having equal weight, without the increasing pressure of “building” toward one or more climaxes that is typical of the novel. In a tale we wait to hear what will come next, but the waiting is less suspenseful than it tends to be in the novel; from long practice in listening, we can afford to be patient while our teller counts out the bills that are our due reward.
Cervantes, often cited as the inventor of the novel, had a wonderful understanding of every form of narrative and exemplified it in Don Quixote. That he appreciated the effect of counting, of simple accumulation, so profoundly rooted in the tale is shown in Chapter 20 of Part One, where the knight orders Sancho Panza to tell him a tale to help them both pass a wakeful night in the outdoors. Sancho Panza obliges, bidding his master, as the condition of his storytelling, that he keep mum and not interrupt.
“I say then,” recounts Sancho, “that in a village of Estremadura there was once a goatish shepherd (I mean that he tended goats), and this shepherd, or goathered, as my story goes, was called Lope Ruiz, and this Lope Ruiz fell in love with a shepherdess, who was called Torralba, which shepherdess called Torralba was the daughter of a rich flock master, and this rich flock master—“ “If you tell your story, Sancho, that way,” interrupts Don Quixote, “and repeat everything you have to say twice over, you will not finish in two days.” “My way of telling it,” replies Sancho, “is the way they tell all stories in my country, and I don’t know any other way of telling it.” “Tell it as you please then,” answers Don Quixote, “and since it is Fate’s will that I can’t help listening, go on.”
Thereupon Sancho continues his story, till he gets the goatherd to the bank of a river (duly named) with his flock of goats, which he wants to take across. But, instead of a ferry, he can find only one fisherman with a boat so small that it will hold only a man and a goat. “All the same,” says Sancho Panza, “he spoke to him and arranged with him to carry himself and his three hundred goats across. The fisherman got into the boat and carried one goat across, returned and carried another, and came back again and carried over another—Now keep an account, sir, of the goats the fisherman is carrying over, for if one should slip from your memory, the story will end and it will be impossible for me to tell you another word of it. I’ll go on, then, and say that the landing place on the other side was very muddy and slippery, which delayed the fisherman a good deal on his ferrying back and forth; all the same he came back for another goat, and another, and another—“