Introduction to Literature: Robert Coover’s “A Sudden Story”

By Sibylle Machat

Intro­duc­tion to Lit­er­a­ture. Fic­tion. The ses­sion on nar­ra­tive per­spec­tives – some­thing that teach­ers often love, but first year lit­er­a­ture stu­dents just as often dread (close to the hor­rors of met­ri­cal feet in poet­ry). Nev­er­the­less, the syl­labus calls for a dis­cus­sion of either Franz Stanzel’s nar­ra­tive sit­u­a­tions, Ger­ard Genette’s nar­ra­tion and focal­iza­tion, or both.

What can we do to make all of this at least a lit­tle exciting?

Sibylle Machat’s per­son­al copy of Robert Coover’s “A Sud­den Sto­ry.” In: Robert Shep­ard, Ed. Sud­den Fic­tion. Amer­i­can Short-Short Sto­ries. Gibb M. Smith: Lay­ton, 1986.

Robert Coover’s 1986 short short sto­ry, “A Sud­den Sto­ry,” lends itself well not only to an analy­sis of its nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive, but also as a prac­ti­cal exer­cise for stu­dents strug­gling to dis­tin­guish between nar­ra­tive sit­u­a­tions and dif­fer­ent modes of focal­iza­tion. Apply­ing Genette’s the­o­ry of nar­ra­tion and focal­iza­tion, it quick­ly becomes appar­ent that Coover employs a het­erodiegetic nar­ra­tor (a third-per­son nar­ra­tor locat­ed out­side of the char­ac­ters’ world) with both zero and then mul­ti­ple inter­nal vocal­iza­tions. They pro­vide the per­spec­tives of both the hero and the drag­on on the events of the story.

What real­ly gets the stu­dents going is their own re-write of the sto­ry from two dif­fer­ent autodiegetic per­spec­tives – the hero’s and the dragon’s. Depend­ing on class size and time avail­able, this writ­ing task can be done as a group assign­ment, by stu­dent pairs, or as a solo project. By adding their own ideas, stu­dents become sen­si­tive to the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. While the hero, for instance, has been pre­oc­cu­pied with meet­ing the drag­on through­out his entire jour­ney, the sto­ry focus­es only on the cul­mi­na­tion of the hero’s quest. The drag­on, on the oth­er hand, is unable to under­stand the encounter due to his lack of long-term memory.

Use­ful scaf­fold­ing is to assign the per­spec­tives of the drag­on and the hero accord­ing to the stu­dents’ skill lev­els rather than let­ting them choose for them­selves. It comes as no great sur­prise that the dragon’s per­spec­tive is usu­al­ly hard­er for stu­dents to iden­ti­fy with and recre­ate in their stories.

Here are some stu­dent exam­ples from my “Intro­duc­tion to Lit­er­a­ture” seminars:

Autodiegetic – Hero

  • “I’ve final­ly found the drag­on I’ve been try­ing to kill for years. It sure took me a long time to cross that end­less desert, but, at last, here he is! Time to fin­ish this!”
  • “When I set forth, years ago, I almost gave up. It wasn’t until I found the cities crys­tal­ized by drag­on breath that I final­ly man­aged to track him down.”

Autodiegetic – Dragon

  • “I’m eat­ing. This tastes weird. What is it? I’m hungry.”
  • “Nom nom, food! What’s that? Hunger. What?”

Alter­na­tive­ly, “A Sud­den Sto­ry” can also be employed as an exer­cise on Stanzel’s nar­ra­tive sit­u­a­tions that may lead stu­dents to the fol­low­ing results:

Fig­ur­al nar­ra­tion – Hero

  • “The hero has spent years track­ing the drag­on, through deserts, forests, aban­doned cities. Now he has final­ly found it and won­ders about its size. He thinks he might have made a mistake.”

Fig­ur­al nar­ra­tion – Dragon

  • “The drag­on is hun­gry. The drag­on has found some­thing to eat. For a moment, it tastes famil­iar, but then it no longer does. The drag­on is hun­gry. So hungry.”

First-per­son nar­ra­tor – Hero

  • “My entire life I’ve antic­i­pat­ed this encounter, and this is what it’s come to? This? All that trekking through enchant­ed forests and end­less deserts and …”

First-per­son nar­ra­tor – Dragon

  • “I eats.”

After stu­dents have com­plet­ed their tasks, I col­lect their sto­ries in a ple­nary ses­sion and dis­cuss the results, mak­ing stu­dents iden­ti­fy pos­si­ble mis­takes (at least one or two stu­dents usu­al­ly strug­gle with prop­er­ly keep­ing to the dragon’s lim­it­ed aware­ness and end up with sto­ries way too elab­o­rate). I also dis­cuss how stu­dents iden­ti­fied the infor­ma­tion rel­e­vant to their assign­ment in the sto­ry and how this tech­nique might be fruit­ful­ly applied to oth­er sto­ries where ques­tions of Stanzel’s nar­ra­tive per­spec­tives or Genette’s narration/focalization crop up.

As a final note, I will leave you with one ques­tion: Which one of the two per­spec­tives is actu­al­ly more con­ducive to lead­ing a hap­py life – the hero’s or the dragon’s?

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Dr. Sibylle Machat is head of the M.A. pro­gram “Kul­tur — Sprache — Medi­en (KSM)” at Europa-Uni­ver­sität Flens­burg where she also teach­es in the fields of U.S. lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al stud­ies. She earned her M.A. degree in Eng­lish & Amer­i­can Stud­ies, Media & Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies and Busi­ness Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mannheim as well as an M.A. in Unit­ed States Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. Then she moved to Flens­burg where she earned her doc­tor­ate with a the­sis on “Nar­ra­tive Struc­tures, World Con­struc­tions, and Phys­i­cal Real­i­ties in the Post-Apoc­a­lyp­tic Nov­el.” When she’s not busy as an admin­is­tra­tor, Sibylle enjoys sail­ing, hik­ing, and pho­tog­ra­phy. You can find some results of that lat­ter endeav­or at www.sibyllogy.com.