In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Dan Shen. Style and Rhetoric of Short Narrative Fiction:Covert Progressions Behind Overt Plots
  • Miriam Wolff (bio)
Dan Shen. Style and Rhetoric of Short Narrative Fiction: Covert Progressions Behind Overt Plots. Routledge, 2014, 175 pp. ISBN: 9780415635486.

In a June 1919 letter to Lady Ottoline Morell, Katherine Mansfield lamented the shallowness of those who do not strive to live deeply. “How tired one becomes of all these surfaces” (Boddy 304), she wrote. It is fitting, then, that Dan Shen’s Style and Rhetoric of Short Narrative Fiction: Covert Progressions Behind Overt Plots incorporates several examples of Mansfield’s own short stories to delve beneath the superficial layers of plot and narrative to reveal the hidden meanings in short narrative fiction. By focusing on elements of style and rhetorical structure, Shen challenges traditional narratological analyses and presents a theory that both edifies and illuminates our understanding of overt and covert textual progressions. Neo-Aristotelian in her approach, Shen suggests that a focus on superficial plots has hindered the discovery of “undercurrents” that concomitantly shape the narrative. As Shen posits, these covert textual progressions provide “important countervailing or supplementary themes that are crucial to the understanding of the implied author’s rhetorical design” (144).

James Phelan, author of Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative (2007), observes in his foreword that Shen’s theory is unique in that she expands narratology’s scope and suggests that these hidden themes may complement or, conversely, run counter to the overt plot. As he notes, the “covert progression” that Shen unearths “constitutes an additional ironic layer behind the irony of the plot development, either complimenting or subverting the latter” (x). Describing this subliminal [End Page 118] current, Shen theorizes that “our surface reading, or the way the overt plot moves, exists in tension with a very different and powerful dynamic that focuses at a hidden and deeper level, on aesthetics and ethics. … This hidden dynamic, which complicates the audience’s response in various ways is what I call ‘covert progression’” (1). In contrast to the “overt progression” which is readily discernable in the plot, the covert progression is discerned by “conscious effort” (146) and is metaphorically categorized as an “undercurrent” which is a fitting representation of a deeper layer of meaning that is distinguishable from readily discernable themes. As Shen differentiates between superficial and subsurface, these layers exist in tandem and permeate the text throughout; “The relation between the ethical significance generated by the covert progression and the overt plot varies from narrative to narrative, ranging from supplementation to subversion” (3).

Shen illustrates that this close attention to style reveals that details which appear to be extraneous or inconsequential may indeed shape the deeper covert progression. A close reading of the rhetorical devices, style and structure is therefore vital: “the uncovering of the ironic undercurrent calls for reading the text forward and backward and that careful attention is required to see the complicated interaction among subtle stylistic and structural choices in different parts of the textual sequence” (138–39).

To illustrate her theory, Shen provides a close reading and in-depth analyses of six examples of short narrative fiction: Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, Crane’s An Episode of War, Chopin’s Desiree’s Baby, and three texts by Katherine Mansfield: Revelations, The Singing Lesson, and The Fly. Shen devotes a chapter to each, first by introducing critical scholarship on narratological themes and plots, and then proceeds to examine seemingly inconsequential elements of style to unearth additional nuances. Her analysis is a figurative peeling back of layers; each layer is consequential and relevant to the whole, yet each deeper layer takes us closer to the core. Thus, her examination of Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart reveals that Poe’s story incorporates themes of sanity and neurosis with a covert progression that reveals the “protagonist’s unconscious self-condemnation and unconscious self-conviction” (48). These two forces “form an overall dramatic irony, implicitly conveying a moral—how one’s self-satisfying hypocrisy can lead to one’s downfall” (4).

Shen’s analysis of covert progression similarly reveals underlying themes that have been heretofore ignored in Crane’s An Episode of War...