Professor Charles E. May: What Makes a Great Short Story? (No.3 ‘The Numbers’ by Clare Wigfall)

Article by Professor Charles E. May

Clare Wigfall, “The Numbers” 2008 BBC National Short Story Award

Martha Kearney, chair of the judges of the BBC National Short Story Award in 2008, has been quoted as calling Clare Wigfall’s winning story “The Numbers” an “act of historical ventriloquism” that shows us “just what the short story can achieve, conjuring up a whole world in microcosm.”

Although the short story can indeed create the similitude of a “whole world” in a small space, it is seldom the “actual world” that it evokes, but rather a self-consciously constructed “story-made” world. That’s not a bad thing, but rather an acknowledgement that the difference between so-called “reality” and art is that reality is just “stuff that happens,” while art seeks to discover significance in human experience.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2008

In an interview on Eric Forbes’ blog, Wigfall said she thinks there is something “almost beautifully mathematical and precise” about the short story, adding that because what you leave out is as important as what you leave in, you have to rely on your reader’s ability to fill in the gaps. Consequently, she suggests, this is what makes the form so intellectually demanding and what makes so many readers shun the short story. This demand for a personal investment by the reader is perhaps why the very best short stories “can haunt you long after you’ve read them,” says Wigfall, because so much of the experience of reading a short story is “individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read.  There’s something magical about that.”

Magic has always been at the heart of the short story. The best known example of the oral folk tale in the early nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott’s insert tale in  Redgauntlet, which is often anthologized as “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (1824). Walter Allen, in his The Short Story in English says that although Scott “adored the magical, the supernatural, the irrational, all that was sanctified by age and custom,” he was at the same time “an extraordinarily acute observer of the behaviour of men in society and of men in specific areas of society.”

The central ambiguity of Scott’s tale is whether the events of the story take place in the realm of superstition and folklore or whether they take place in the real world. Because of the ambiguous tone of the teller, “Wandering Willie’s Tale” marks a transition from the supernatural tale of the folk to the modern short story in which the supposed supernatural has a symbolic significance. Wigfall’s story falls within this tradition that has always been characteristic of the short story form.

the short story has often been accused

of being cut off from everyday social reality

In one of the most famous, but least examined remarks ever made about the short story, Frank O’Connor once said:  “The short story has never had a hero.  What it has instead is a submerged population group–a bad phrase which I have had to use for want of a better.”  Admitting that he did not fully understand the idea, O’Connor insisted nonetheless that there were too many indications of its general truth for him to ignore it. Basically, O’Connor’s notion was that whereas the novel focuses on human beings who live in a community, the short story “remains by its very nature remote from the community–romantic, individualistic, and intransigent.” The result is that in the short story there is often an intense sense of human loneliness.

Wigfall’s decision to focus “The Numbers” on  Peigi NicFionnlaigh, a woman who lives on a small island in the Hebrides off the coast of Northeast Scotland, inhabited by only 33 people, is a prototypical version of O’Connor’s notion that the short story focuses on loneliness and an isolated group of folk, remote from modern society.

The short story’s origin in folk tales and ballads, told by an oral teller to a captive small group of entranced listeners, and its focus on folks in an isolated community cut off from society often leads to a sometimes claustrophobic sense of obsession.  When Poe moved the story away from the folk tale, he maintained this obsessive coherence of the story by his famed focus on everything contributing to a single effect and by the obsessive single-mindedness of many of his characters, such as the central characters of “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Imp of the Perverse”—all of whom seem enthrall to obsessions they can neither understand nor escape. Wigfall’s decision to focus on Peigi’s obsession with numbers aligns her story with the short story’s emphasis on this obsessiveness.

Freud argues that obsessive acts are usually performed to escape feelings of dread or anxiety with no discernible cause. As Roderick Usher says about his struggle with the grim fantasy FEAR, he has no abhorrence of danger, “except in its absolute effect–in terror.” Analysts suggest that since anxiety cannot be dealt with directly because its sources are usually unknown, the individual develops defenses against it, of which the obsessional defense is the most common.

Ritual is one of the most characteristic obsessional means by which one defends against anxiety, for the ritual act is a symbolic enactment to simulate command of that for which the personality feels it has no control. Freud’s famous “fort-da,” described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which a baby repetitively throws a toy out of its crib to objectify its wish fulfillment of control over the mother’s departure, is perhaps the most famous example. Randal Jarrell says the child whose mother left her so often that she invented a game of throwing her doll out of her crib, exclaiming as it vanished ‘Gone! gone!’ was a “true poet.”

Peigi’s love of numbers is her way of

dealing with the harsh realities of her

life by creating a sense of control

Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation, and mortal anxiety–existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying them in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do.

Psychoanalysis has argued that the obsessional impulse is not a defense against anxiety about everyday problems, but rather anxiety about the most basic problems that arise from our fundamental humanness.  The entire line of development of the short story–from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver–has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object. As a result the short story has often been accused of being cut off from everyday social reality.

Although like others on the island, Peigi only went to school up to age 10 and although she knows that others on the island do not think that numbers are of much use, she has always been obsessed with numbers. She says the way she views it, “numbers lend a logic to the world.  They explain things. Throw light upon problems and make you recognise truth.  They can be a comfort.”  This echoes Wigfall’s opinion that there is something “almost beautifully mathematical and precise” about the short story form.

Peigi calls her example of the use of numbers to describe her poor prospects to find eligible men on the island a case of the “beauty of numbers. They lay down the facts with such plainness and order you realise it’s simply not worth upsetting yourself over.” She concludes that even if the solution to the problem is not to your liking—that is, that she has little chance of getting married—in the end “it is just a question of arithmetic. Simple arithmetic. Numbers. And who would be foolish enough to rail against numbers?” Thus, Peigi’s love of numbers is her way of dealing with the harsh realities of her life by creating a sense of control; it is formalized behavior, much like the short story itself, to create a defense against anxiety about the most basic problems of human experience—the sense of being alone.

Peigi tells an anecdote from when she was 7 years old, when anthropologists came from England to dig for bog bodies that the natives refer to as “boggarts,” another name for bogeymen.  Boggarts have been made famous recently by J. K. Rollins in the Harry Potter books as shape shifters that take on the appearance of one’s worst fears when encountered. Highly formalized magic is the only way to deal with them.

The description Peigi gives of one of the bog people the researchers dig up with black skin, red hair and black boots on its feet sounds very much like the most famous bog body, the Yde Girl, found in 1897 in the Netherlands, and more famously facially reconstructed in 1992 as a conventionally attractive young woman. (Both the bog girl and the reconstruction can be viewed in a Dutch museum, and of course online.) American writer Karen Russell did a story for The New Yorker a few years ago named “The Bog Girl” that also featured a Yde Girl bog body.

Another anecdote Peigi tells concerns her work at herring gutting and salting, where she meets an old school acquaintance named Willeam MacGhobain who had been sent to the mainland as a child and never returned.  His wife has died, leaving him with children. He offers Peigi a way out of the dead-end of her life on the island.

But the most important incident in the story takes place when Peigi walks home at night and hears an eerie cry from the heath—“A sound quite aching with loneliness.” It is a sound that “touched a deep and trembly chord” inside her that, “against all sense and reason” she cannot ignore.” The discovery of the baby offers Peigi another possible escape from her loneliness. However, the superstition of the others on the island, including her family, threatens to jeopardize that hope. Her brother tells her there is some “darksome magick” surrounding the child that will bring bad luck to the island. The most threatening islander is Domhnall MacAindreas, “a rough, ugly man with a temper to match,” who warns her that no good will come of the child, “No good at all.” It is therefore, inevitable, that, reeking of drink and cursing, he would storm into Peigi’s home, snatch the baby away, and hurl it into the dry gorse, shouting, “Bastard, be gone with ye.”

The mystery of the story is resolved by our discovery that the baby is the child of MacAindreas’s rape of his “poor simple sister” and that he is standing trial on the mainland for his crime. The final scene provides a further possible resolution–that Peigi will have a relationship with Willeam MacGhobain and his children. Made ill by the rough seas when she goes to the gutting with Willeam, she tries to “steady her wits” by counting, but the numbers will not stay straight, and she thinks how easy it would be to simply tip back over the edge of the boat and “sink beneath the grey waves.”  However, she concludes, “That would have been against reason,” suggesting that it is her mathematical mind set of controlled formalization that saves her.

Clare Wigfall has approvingly quoted Simon Prosser, an editor at Hamish Hamilton, who suggested that the short story may be “better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel,” something he says may be true because time is in so much demand nowadays.  However, I suggest that if the short story is so well suited to the modern world it is not because its shortness appeals to a hurry-up world, for one cannot read a good short story hurriedly. It is  rather, as Nadine Gordimer once argued, because the short story, as a form and as a “kind of creative vision,” is best able to capture ultimate reality today where human contact is like “the flash of fireflies.” Short-story writers, says Gordimer, “see by the light of the flash; theirs is the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.”

Clare Wigfall’s story “The Numbers” may very well have won the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award because in so many ways it exemplifies what the short story as a form has always achieved.


Prof. Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author/editor of ten books, including ‘Short Story Theories’, ‘New Short Story Theories, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice’, ‘I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies’, and over 200 articles and reviews on the short story. He publishes weekly essays on the blog Reading the Short Story.

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