[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Hix summarizes the author’s approach to short stories: “Gass wants the story to be realistic, but not about the place. He wants it to be realistic about the mind of its speaker, and that speaker’s mind, like those of other speakers in Gass’s fictions, has a very limited, distorted, deceptive, and otherwise unrealistic apprehension of what he is describing.”]
In his Poetics, Aristotle names six components of a narrative, identifying plot as the most important of the six. To make the point, he contrasts plot with character (another of the six ingredients) as a way of showing why the former matters more. Aristotle argues that “character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.” Stories do not portray action in order to display their characters, but instead employ characters in order to make action possible. Plot, Aristotle argues, is the end, character merely the means. A story “is impossible without action, but there may be one without character.”1
William Gass adopts the opposing point of view, contending that “great character is the most obvious single mark of great literature” (FFL, 35), and reversing Aristotle’s hierarchy to make plot the means and character the end: “The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness,” the replication, in other words, of what a character thinks and feels, rather than how he or she acts, “and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are” not the observer of events but “that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed” (FFL, 33). Gass also specifically identifies the privileging of character over plot as an evaluative criterion to be applied to his own work, suggesting that “if I alter any reader’s consciousness, it will be because I have constructed a consciousness of which others may wish to become aware, or even, for a short time, share” (FAF, 47), not because he has portrayed actions others may wish to observe or even participate in.
The previous chapter portrayed character as central to Omensetter’s Luck. Character also holds pride of place in all five stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country [In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories] and creates the point of greatest continuity between the two books. In fact, the degree of similarity between the characters in each leads Watson L. Holloway to call the narrators of the stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country the “offspring or subspecies of Jethro Furber,” citing as family resemblances that “they are alienated; they peer at their surroundings through screens made of language; they hide behind windows and doors and look out at things.”2 The continuity from character to character also extends beyond these books; besides echoing those in Omensetter’s Luck, the characters in these stories also anticipate the characters in each...