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The short story fits perfectly

By Lucas Wafula | Dec 28th 2014 | 5 min read

We advised our students to avoid the short stories. What with all the characters in those stories,” a teacher of English and Literature told me recently.

My heart sunk at this pronouncement; I was reading Anton Chekhov’s short story, The Bet.

This teacher mourned about the lack of time to go through all the stories, analyse them and cram all the characters and their traits.

Should the short story cause such anxiety? Ama Ato Aido, the grand matriarch of African literature once said “I think the short story, unfortunately, is rather misrepresented...I have found that African teachers and scholars have only paid attention to the novel.”

I would like to submit that the benefits of teaching the short story outweigh the ‘luggage’ of the numerous characters — yet the amounts are hardly ever copious!

What this teacher was saying is that teachers of literature are marginalising the short story, making it a footnote to the novel.

They are sidelining it to a peripheral genre to which they assign second fiddle functions like prelude and afterthought.

As our discussion proceeded, I kept on thinking about Chekhov’s short story, The Bet.

There are only two noticeable characters in this story. The Bet is a story about a bet between a banker and a young lawyer.

This story interrogates the value of human life vis-à-vis hoarding of money and as such power.

The banker while hosting his friends to a party discusses the merits and demerits of both capital punishment and life imprisonment.

The banker argues that capital punishment is more humane than life imprisonment.

He thinks that the suffering soon ends for a person who faces capital punishment unlike the one incarcerated for life thereby being ‘killed in installments’.

On his part, the young lawyer posits that he would choose life imprisonment over capital punishment.

As the argument becomes more heated, the banker angrily wagers two million rubles that the lawyer could not endure imprisonment — a challenge that the lawyer accepts, setting the term of his voluntary captivity at fifteen years, at the end of which he would receive the two million rubles.

The lawyer, therefore, is incarcerated in the banker’s garden house in complete seclusion. He is not permitted visitors, letters, or newspapers.

At the beginning of the story, the day on which the banker is recalling the events of these fifteen years, he is within a day of the final accounting.

Rich but oppressed

He is no longer rich but oppressed by debt and he will be ruined if he ends up paying the two million rubles.

Desperate, the banker resolves to unlock the garden house door and to kill his captive, throwing the blame on the night guard.

When he enters the room, he meets an emaciated man — the young lawyer has grown old before his time — asleep at his table.

Before him is a paper, on which he has stated that he despises everything in human life, even the books from which he has learned about it, and that, therefore, he intends to leave his room five minutes before the fifteen-year period elapses, thus forfeiting the bet.

After reading the paper, the banker totally loathes himself. The next morning, he learns that the lawyer has indeed left the garden house. So, to ensure that no one will suspect him of a crime, the banker hides the paper in his fireproof safe.

Greed is what drove the lawyer to accept the bet — the lure of two million rubles.

On the other hand, the banker, who was by then rich, did not think he would lose his riches.

He praised his wealth and enjoyed it deeply.

The lawyer too, was greedy. Indeed, pure greed corrupts the value of money and negates importance for human life.

Greed for power

Today, as we discuss the merits and demerits of the anti-terrorism Bill, we should be quick in making vows but be thinking about the value of human life; it is immeasurable and it outweighs the value of money, and power, as the lawyer in The Bet finally discovered. Our leaders should not be led by greed for power and or protecting it; they have to remember that their fortunes will at one time change.

Those opposing the bill should not oppose for the sake of opposing but do so with reasons as they point out weaknesses.

Certainly, this is a short story a teacher can easily teach and use in class.

However, the approach to its teaching is what will matter.

Teachers of literature should use the short story as the basis of teaching the novel and not vice versa.

Short stories, as the name suggests, are short and can be read in a sitting and can be easier to understand.

One thing should be clear though: first, they should be read for enjoyment.

Many students view set books and as such literature as a burden — that thing they should read and be done with.

It is imperative that teachers aspire to change this attitude by quietly introducing the short story in Form 1.

Our educators have to realise that the reading culture among the neophytes should be spurred on.

I observed at a recent function that people like being read to: university students at this function asked an author, who was launching his novel, to read parts of the novel to them!

Carey Francis read to his students during his time at Alliance Boys High School — it birthed the love for literature in Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Teachers should read to their students and being the copycats that they are, the students will ape what the teachers do.

Usually, the short story is compressed, vivid, and swift and close to reality hence it can be used as a comprehension passage.

This can be used both in class and in examinations.

Critical thinking

Just in case the teacher knows that the students have apathy towards literature, he or she should discuss the short story — say from a set text — in class without indicating that it is from the set book.

By the end of Form 2, it is likely that the learners will have read several short stories and by the time they read them properly in Form 3, they will already be familiar with the stories thereby saving the teacher valuable time.

They would also have developed their critical thinking abilities and appreciated the aesthetics contained in the stories.

This will ease the study, appreciation and critical analysis of the set short stories.

One of the important aspects of the short story is that it focuses on a creation of a mood rather than narration of a story.

The learners should be taught to listen to the voice in the story and enjoy it; they should not overly focus on characters.

Without doubt, the short story is one of the most important and exciting literary forms that can be read and enjoyed by our learners.

The short story will set a good foundation for the learner to read, enjoy and appreciate more complex forms like the novel.


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