Study Questions: Short Story

from, Stephen C. Behrendt; 12/12/07
Not all of these questions will be equally applicable to all of the short stories you will read — or to short stories generally that you will read outside this course. But they will help you to become better, more careful, more insightful, and more confident as a reader. In class discussions, we will emphasize various of these elements, some of them more than others, so that you can get a sense of how we can approach the same story in different ways and with different objectives for ourselves as readers. I suggest that you read through these questions each time you prepare to read an assigned story. Doing so, even though it may seem simplistic and repetitious, will help you to read in a more informed manner, and it will help you, too, to be more receptive to the artistry — the aesthetic values — of these and other stories you will read.

Questions to help you analyze the PLOT

  1. Who is the protagonist of this short story? Try to establish his/her age, family background, social class and status, and occupation.
  2. Summarize as briefly as possible the single change which occurs to the protagonist during the course of this story, taking care to specify whether this change is mainly one of fortune, moral character, or knowledge.
  3. Trace the progress of this change through these detailed stages:
    1. the original situation of the protagonist (including the initial possibilities of later disequilibrium);?
    2. the precipitating event which begins to involve the protagonist in a central tension;
    3. the alternative types of action which are available to the protagonist as his involvement intensifies;?
    4. the major steps by which the involvement is intensified (show how each step advances the involvement, and how it changes the relative strength of the alternatives);?
    5. the crisis (show what precipitates the crisis and how);?f. the resolution (show what breaks the crisis and how).
  4. At what point in this story is the tension highest? Is that point the dramatic climax? How is the tension produced, and is it appropriate? Does the story as a whole seem to be high-tension or low-tension?
  5. Does the story involve an epiphany, or moment of insight, revelation, or self-realization for the protagonist—or perhaps for the reader? If so, does it coincide with the dramatic climax, or crisis, of the story?
  6. What questions of probability arise in this story? In general, are the events of this story sufficiently probable to support its overall design?

Questions to help you analyze CHARACTERIZATION

  1. Is the protagonist a round or a flat character? On what evidence do you base your answer? What about the other characters? Why are they made the way they are?
  2. Evaluate the moral structure of the protagonist:
    1. To what degree is his/her moral stature defined by the words and actions of contrasting minor characters, or by the testimony of characters who are readily acceptable as witnesses??
    2. Discuss the protagonist’s inclinations toward specific virtues and vices, his/her powers or handicaps with relation to those virtues and vices, and one or two important instances in which his/her moral stature is apparent.
  3. Describe the psychology of the protagonist:
    1. What are her/his dominant traits or desires? How did these traits or desires apparently originate? Do they support or oppose one another? Explain.?
    2. Through what modes of awareness is the protagonist most responsive to life – rational, instinctual, sensory, emotional, intuitive? Explain and illustrate.?
    3. Discuss the way in which she/he takes hold of a situation. In what terms does she/he see her/his problems? What does she/he try to maximize or minimize, try to prove or disprove? Do her/his reactions proceed through definable phases? If so, what are they? How may one explain her/his effectiveness or inadequacy in taking hold of a situation or emergency?
  4. In view of all these matters, what does the author apparently want us to think and feel about what happens to the protagonist?
  5. Is the protagonist’s personality worked out with probability and consistency?

Questions to help you evaluate the story’s NARRATIVE MANNER

  1. What is the predominant point of view in this story, and who seems to be the focal character? Illustrate by citing a very brief passage and showing how it confirms your opinion.
  2. What kind of ordering of time predominates in this story? Explain.??
  3. At what points does the narrative significantly slow down or speed up? At what points do conspicuous jumps in time occur? Why, in each case?
  4. Select several passages from this story, each reasonably brief, and use them to illustrate a discussion of the following stylistic matters:
    1. special qualities of diction and sentence structure;?
    2. the use of style to individualize the speech, thought, and personality of particular characters;?
    3. the implied presence of the narrator or “author”; his/her level of involvement; his/her personality;?
    4. the basic vision of life which the style of the story reflects and extends.

Questions to help you assess IDEA in the story

  1. What is the theme of the story? Express it in a single declarative sentence.
  2. According to the story, what kind of behavior makes for lasting human worth or for human waste?
  3. Evaluate the relative importance in influencing the outcome of the story of the following: physical nature, biological make-up, intimate personal relationships, society. What does the author seem to regard as the chief area in which human destiny is shaped
  4. According to the story, to what extent is the individual able to manage these formative conditions?
  5. To what extent is any individual’s final outcome helped or hindered by forces outside his/her control? In the story are these influences benignant, malignant, or indifferent? Explain.

Questions that may help you understand the story’s BACKGROUND

  1. Summarize the facts of the author’s birth, family and social position, main gifts or handicaps, education, and entry into writing.
  2. Describe briefly, with dates, the more important of the author’s earlier works, giving special attention to the work immediately preceding the story under study.
  3. What specific circumstances led the author to write this story? To what extent did she/he depart from the sort of fiction she/he had written up to this point? What persons, events, or other autobiographical materials does this story reflect, and with what modifications? What account of her/his inspirations and problems with this story did the author provide through letters, prefaces, journals, and the like?
  4. By focusing upon sample details of this story, show how this biographical information (questions 1 and 3) helps to explain the design of the work.
  5. What main features of social tension or stability in his/her own times did the author treat in this story? (e. g, ideology, war, economics, technology, daily life, etc.)? Explain, using both this story and such outside sources as personal statements by the author, histories of the period, etc.
  6. By focusing upon sample details of the story, show how this historical information (question 5) helps to explain the design of the story.
  7. What authors, literary circles, or movements did the present author support, attack, imitate, join, or depart from? Why?
  8. Show how this literary background helps explain the design of the story.