The Ordinary and the Short Story

Short Fiction of T.F. Powys and V.S. Pritchett

by Miłosz Wojtyna (Author)
©2015 Monographs 230 Pages


This formalist-narratological study of T.F. Powys’ and V.S. Pritchett’s short fiction reestablishes both authors as important contributors to the history of the short story form. It also discusses how writers, who did not belong to the modernist avant-garde innovation, address the problems of the short story form in the twentieth century. The study takes a close look at the uses of the ordinary and analyses character, setting, and event presentation, narrators, audiences, narrativity, eventfulness, causality, and narrative rhetoric. It presents two kinds of short fiction and two kinds of the ordinary: the ecstatic one, focused on violations of norm, and the static kind that reassures its patterns.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 0.1 The Ordinary
  • 0.2 Russian Formalism and the Ordinary
  • 0.3 The Ordinary: Definition
  • 0.4 The Short Story
  • 0.5 Narrative Rhetoric
  • 0.6 Powys, Pritchett and the Critics
  • Chapter One T. F. Powys: The Ecstatic Ordinary
  • 1.1 The Ordinary and the Violation
  • 1.2 The Ordinary: Setting
  • 1.3 The Ordinary: Characterization
  • – Habit and Agency
  • 1.4 The Violation: Setting
  • 1.5 The Violation: Events
  • 1.6 The Violation: Characterization
  • – Character Instabilities
  • – Fictional Modes and Powers of Action
  • 1.7 The Violation: Language
  • 1.8 Conclusion: Doxa and the Extravagance of Ordinariness
  • Chapter Two V.S. Pritchett: The Static Ordinary
  • 2.1 Character and the Ordinary
  • – Stasis: Characterisation
  • – Character Constellations
  • – Characterisation Modes
  • – Appearance Descriptions
  • – Totalizing Statements
  • 2.2 Stasis-Ekstasis: Events
  • 2.3 Setting – Convention
  • 2.4 Language
  • 2.5 Conclusions: Stasis
  • – The Hermeneutical Event
  • Chapter Three Narration, Rhetoric and the Ordinary
  • 3.1 Narration, Rhetoric and the Ordinary
  • 3.2 Powys: Narrators and Audiences
  • 3.3 Pritchett: Narrators, Characters, and Audiences
  • 3.4 Narrativity
  • 3.5 Powys: Narrativity
  • 3.6 Pritchett: Description and Narrativity
  • 3.7 Causality
  • 3.8 Powys: Causality
  • 3.9 Pritchett: Causality
  • Endings. Conclusions
  • – Endings
  • – Conclusions
  • Works Cited

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“Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to its vomit”, Samuel Beckett (1976: 19)

“Indeed most of life escapes, now I come to think of it: the texture of the ordinary day”, Virginia Woolf (qtd. in Sim 2010: 1)

“Poe’s defect was that he was not interested in the ordinary”, H. E. Bates (1972: 33)

“Form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite. This satisfaction – so complicated is the human mechanism – at times involves a temporary set of frustrations, but in the end these frustrations prove to be simply a more involved kind of satisfaction”, Kenneth Burke (1931: 40)

“There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’. And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”, David Foster Wallace (2009: 3–4)

„Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt“, G.W.F. Hegel (1832: 25)

“All we need do is simply to open our eyes, to leave the dark world of metaphysics and the false depths of the ‘inner life’ behind, and we will discover the immense human wealth that the humblest facts of everyday life contain. ‘The familiar is not necessarily the known’, said Hegel. Let us go father and say that it is in the most familiar things that the unknown – not the mysterious – is at its richest, and that this rich content of life is still beyond our empty, darkling consciousness, inhabited as it is by impostors, and gorged with the forms of Pure Reason, with myths and their illusory poetry”, Henri Lefebvre (2014: 152)

This work stems from the assumption that an important feature of literature is its potential for deautomatization of what has become habitualized. The argumentation below also builds on the idea that some literary techniques, devices, themes, motifs, and some represented phenomena tend to become outdated and lose their germinative power over readers. The decrease in the interest value of texts is possible through convoluted though never too obvious parallel processes of canon-formation and marginalization of literary material. The changes in readerly attention are consequential – both in a historical and an individual-textual perspective. In what follows I will discuss a literary form – the short story – that has, for decades, been seen as a minor phenomenon in comparison ← 7 | 8 → to its dominant prosaic competitor – the novel. I will present the short story oeuvres of two non-canonical writers – T. F. Powys and V. S. Pritchett – with the focus on what is ordinary in them – both in terms of thematic interests on the story level and narrative realizations on the discourse level. A recurrent motif in the history of the short story form, the ordinary is a prominent component of these two writer’s respective fictions – one that greatly affects the rhetorical structures of the narratives. In other words, the stories face a significant risk that what is presented in them – the typical – might not appear worthy of attention. I therefore focus on the ordinary specifically because of the paradox that is inherent in it: something that is familiar in Powys’ and Pritchett’s stories serves as a tool for defamiliarization, a generator of interest and of other reactions that appear in the communication that a literary text embodies.

In the introduction I will define the ordinary, observe the specificity of the short story form, discuss the non-canonical position of the authors in question (Powys and Pritchett), and present the motivation for the specific methodological conglomerate that is applied in the analysis.

0.1 The Ordinary

Finding a definition of the ordinary is a troublesome task. It is good to start with a twin-concept. Ben Highmore, attempting to define everyday life, writes thus: “As the notion of ‘everyday life’ circulates in Western cultures under its many guises (Alltagsleben, la vie quotidienne, run-of-the-mill and so on) one difficulty becomes immediately apparent: ‘everyday life’ signifies ambivalently” (2002: 1)1. The ambivalence that Highmore underscores, following Michel de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, and Henri Lefebvre2, is also a feature of the ordinary, ← 8 | 9 → or, as it will synonymously be called here, the commonplace or the mundane: “its special quality might be its lack of qualities. It might be, precisely, the unnoticed, the inconspicuous, the unobtrusive” (1)3.

In the introduction to her book on Modernism, Liesl Olson summarises Henri Lefebvre’s views on the everyday:

Lefebvre argues that la vie quotidienne cannot be defined or located. Everyday life eludes metaphor and “evades the grip of forms”. The everyday is not something we notice in any definitive manifestations. Lefebvre writes: “The quotidian is what is humble and solid, what is taken for granted and that of which all the parts follow each other in such a regular, unvarying succession that those concerned have no call to question their sequence; thus it is undated and (apparently) insignificant; though it occupies and preoccupies it is practically untellable, and it is the ethics underlying routine and the aesthetics of familiar settings”. (Olson 2009: 12)4

In the essay called “Everyday Speech” Maurice Blanchot a number of times repeats the argument about the ungraspability of the mundane:

Whatever its other aspects, the everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold. It escapes. It belongs to insignificance, and the insignificant is without truth, without reality, without secret, but perhaps also the site of all possible signification. The everyday escapes. This makes its strangeness – the familiar showing itself (but already dispersing) in the guise of the astonishing. (1987: 14)

Seen in this way, the ordinary in real life consists of activities based on regular repetition and thus belonging to the twin-category of the everyday. We shall, however, aim to establish a definition of, or a way of looking at the ordinary that could accommodate our analytical purposes concerning the literary material rather than ← 9 | 10 → empirical reality. In the same text Blanchot establishes a line of thinking about the ordinary that moves one closer to its literary representations. Blanchot’s argument is both obvious and insightful – he claims that the everyday always relies on a tension that something will alter its shape, that something may and will happen:

The everyday is always unrealized in its very actualization which no event, however important or however insignificant, can ever produce. Nothing happens; this is the everyday. But what is the meaning of this stationary movement? At which level is this “nothing happens” situated? For whom does “nothing happen” if, for me, something is necessarily always happening? In other words, what corresponds to the “who?” of the everyday? And, at the same time, why, in this “nothing happens”, is there the affirmation that something essential might be allowed to happen? (Blanchot 1987: 15)

This way of thinking about the ordinary in real life is closer to the double definition we shall soon present, but it also draws attention to at least one feature of the ordinary in literature: anything that is taken for granted invites violations. Blanchot’s observations, as we shall see, parallel our interest in the difference between happening and stasis, between event and non-event in narrative.

Gail Weiss confirms the view that eventfulness and uneventfulness are two versions of the same paradigm, two inextricably linked aspects of the ordinary-extraordinary demarcation of human life:

The “taken-for-granted” quality of ordinary life can be irrevocably disrupted at any point in time. Every person experiences this disruption on occasion, even though what counts as ‘ordinary’ can differ radically from one person to another. While the disruptions themselves tend to dominate one’s attention when they occur, when life is running smoothly and predictably most people are usually less inclined to question the status of the familiar. (Weiss 2008: 1)

As we have noted in reference to Olson’s summary of Lefebvre, much attention has been paid (not only by the representatives of the “everyday life theory”, but also by linguists, philosophers of language, psychoanalytical theorists, phenomenologists, feminist critics and others5) to the ordinary. It is one thing, however, to discuss the commonplace in connection to the social and existential phenomena, and it is another to analyze its literary representations. Olson partly recognizes the discrepancy in the discussions of the ordinary; her focus is on the modernist literary forms: “The ordinary can be a mode of organizing life and representing it; it is a style, best represented by the routine, and aesthetic forms ← 10 | 11 → such as the list, or linguistic repetition, both of which attempt to embody the ordinary, to perform it” (Olson 2009: 6).

Indeed, though seemingly ungraspable, the ordinary is a subject of literary representation. Therefore, the ordinary as a theme is not completely invisible – it has features that can be analysed. I will try to do so in due course.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Narrativity Defamiliarization Characterization Non-Canonicity
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 230 pp.

Biographical notes

Miłosz Wojtyna (Author)

Miłosz Wojtyna holds a Ph.D. from the University of Gdańsk, Poland. He specializes in 20th and 21st century British fiction, contemporary narrative theory and non-canonical short fiction writers from Britain and the Continent. He is a translator and publisher.


Title: The Ordinary and the Short Story