Modern Short Stories

Modern Short Stories (1915-1945)

World War I had a tremendous impact on the attitudes and outlooks of the American people. Prior to World War I, the mood of American society was confident and optimistic. This mood was shattered by the horrifying realities of hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans. When the war ended, many people were left with a feeling of distrust toward the ideas and values of the past. People saw the need for change, but they were unsure about the sort of changes that were needed. There was growing sense of uncertainty, disjointedness, and disillusionment among certain members of American society.

Historical context

  • Overwhelming technological changes
  • World War I first war of mass destruction
  • Grief over loss of past; fear of eroding traditions
  • Rise of youth culture
  • 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s

In the aftermath of World War I, a major literary movement know as Modernism developed. Abandoning many traditional forms and techniques, the Modernists sought to capture the essence of modern life in both the form and content of their world. To reflect the disjointedness of modern life, they constructed their works out of fragments, omitting the expositions, resolutions, interpretations, transitions, and summaries often used in traditional works. The Modernists also frequently expressed their view about modern life in the themes of their works, often focusing on such themes as the uncertainty, bewilderment, and apparent meaninglessness of modern life.


  • Dominant mood: alienation/disconnection
  • Writers see to create a unique style
  • Writing highly experimental: use of fragments, stream of consciousness, interior dialogue

Believing that modern life lacked certainty, the Modernist generally suggested rather than asserted meaning in their works. The theme of a typical Modernist work is implied, not stated, forcing readers to draw their own conclusions. Often, the Modernists used symbols and allusions to suggest themes. They also generally used a limited point of view in their works, believing that reality is shaped by people's perceptions. Finally, the Modernists experimented with a number of new literary techniques, including shifting points of view and stream-of-consciousness.

Major Writers

Sherwood Anderson

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His most famous work is Winesburg, Ohio .

Read "Sophistication" and answer these questions:

"Sophistication" is a story of two people caught between adolescence and maturity. George and Helen strain toward a new awareness of life while they are still bound to the familiar life of Winesburg. What reasons are given in the fourth paragraph for George's "new sense of maturity"?

The fifth paragraph describes the moment of sophistication, when a person first takes "the backward view of life." Anderson uses the image of a passing procession to suggest George's vision of the passing of time. What image does the author use to suggest the feelings of helplessness and uncertainty that accompany sophistication?

The author describes youth as a struggle between two forces: "the warm unthinking little animal" and "the thing that reflects and remembers (Adventures in American Literature 466). Find a few instances in the story of the sturggle between these two forces. What do you think Anderson means by this conflict?

At the end of the story, what do George and Helen gain from their silent evening together that "makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible"? What do you think George and Helen give up of their youth to gain this new-found sophistication?

Katherine Anne Porter

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Read "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" and answer the questions.

What connotations does the name "Weatherall" have in the context of the story?

How is it a suitable name for the main character, Granny?

Cite examples to show that life has not been "too much for her."

Identify the following characters and tell whether they are related primarily to Granny's "present" or to her "past": Cornelia, John, Doctor Harry, George, Father Connolly.

What roles do these characters play in Granny's life and her thoughts?

"She had spent so much time preparing for death there was not need for bringing it up again." Explain how, in light of the end of the story, this sentence is not true.

Why is the jilting so important to Granny? How is the jilting related to the last paragraph of the story?

In the story, figurative language is ofen used to convey Granny's state of mind: for example, to Granny, "Doctor Harry floated like a balloon around the foot of the bed." Find three other examples of figurative language used to convey a state of mind.

Eudora Welty

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Read "A Worn Path" and answer the questions.

The phoenix, a mythical bird, proved to be indestructible by rising from its own ashes after consuming itself in flames. Point out two or three incidents in which Phoenix Jackson triumphs over circumstances that threaten her.

How does Phoenix herself prove to be indestructible?

When Phoenix gets the second nickel from the attendant, she goes to buy a paper windmill for her grandson. How does her method of acquiring the nickles contribute emotional force to an important theme - her tireless love for her grandson?

In what sense does Phoenix literally travel a worn path?

How does the phrase refer more generally to her love for her grandson?

Ernest Hemingway

Read a biography of Hemingway .

Read "Big Two-Hearted River" and answer the questions.

The river runs through the scorched earth of Seney - beween the two "hearts," the fresh, sunlit meadow and the tangled, mist-shrouded swamp. What is significant about the fact that in the midst of a devastated countryside the river still contains living healthy fish?

At what points in the story do you first become aware that something is wrong with Nick? Explain.

Find passages in this story that express pleasure in purely physical sensations. Hemingway has a reputation for being able to convey precisely how a thing looks or how it feels. Do you think he deserves this reputations? Cite examples from the story to support your answer.

Judging from the story, what do you think Hemingway considered important in life? What kinds of skills did he think it imortant for a person to have? How did he think a person should face life? Support your answers with details from the story.

Why is trout fishing particularly difficult in a swamp? Why do think Nick sees fishing there as a "tragic adventure"?

John Steinbeck

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Read "Flight" and answer the questions.

Describe three impressions that you get of the Torres family life from the first few paragraphs. Support each impression with details from the story.

What admirable qualites do you find in Mama Torres?

At the beginning of the story Pepe is described as "fragile" and "lazy." How are his appearance and behavior different when he returns from Monterey?

How does Pepe's behavior during his flight support his mother's ideas of what changes a boy into a man?

Is the story more, or less, interesting because you never see the pursuers or know anything about them?

What is the first indication of real danger?

How does Pepe's gradual shedding of his father's possessions parallel the increasing hopelessness of his situation?

How doe Pepe's flight resemble that of an animal?

What does he do during his flight to retain his dignity as a human being?

Does the ending of the story satisfy you? Why or why not?

William Faulkner

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Read "The Bear" and answer the questions.

The boy hunts the bear three times, when he is ten, eleven, and fourteen years old. The first hunt divides into several actions, as a kind of prelude to the other hunts. What does Sam teach the boy before the first hunt? How does Sam know the bear is near?

As the boy sees the hound return with a tattered ear and raked shoulder, he imagines a cause far more universal than a bear:" was still no living creature, but the wilderness which, leaning for the moment down, had patted lightly once the hound's temerity." Interpret this sentence.

During the second hunt, the boy seems to be on the track of something more than animals. Although the others think he is "hunting squirrels," what is he unconsiously teaching himself?

Sam tells the boy that he will have to "choose." Between what two alternatives must the boy choose? In what sense can a coward be more dangerous than a brave person?

As the boy advances farther into the woods, he realizes that he must abandon not only his gun but also his watch, compass, and stick. What does his abandonment of these things suggest is the real point of his hunting the bear?

By the time the boy is fourteen, what qualifies him as a competent woodsman? What action marks his initiation as a true hunter?

After the first hunt Say says, "We ain't got the dog yet." What kind of dog is needed for the hunt? How does this dog's nature relate to the choice that the boy has had to make?

What has the boy finally acquired from his experiences in the wilderness that is more important than his skill as a woodsman?

Thomas Wolfe

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Read "Circus at Dawn" and answer the questions.

What three circus scenes are described and how does each scene convey the special qualities that might be missing during other times of day?

Find descriptive phrases that are particularly effective in appealing to the senses.

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