READING and ANALYZING SHORT STORIES
The climax at the very end (or very near the end) of a short story should not - however surprising - come as a complete shock to reader. Just as tedious it would be to finish a story in which all the aspects of the final outcome of the plot have been spelled out from the very beginning and thus been given away too soon, just as unsatisfactorily and even incredulous a complete surprise may seem. In the latter case the short story is just another tale from the realm of X-Files or a mere illustration of life’s absurdity.
Instead, the author wants to hint at the possible outcome along the way by establishing additional depth to the plot through his/her tone and diction (phrasing and choice of words); hopefully, the connotations and allusions will evoke associations in the reader corresponding to the climax which in turn may lose part of its shocking effect, but gain the more in credibility.
All of this may not be fully perceived by the reader, but in his/her subconscious mind a preparation for possible outcomes and - more importantly - their credibility is gradually established. A second reading (after the reader has ‘solved’ the mystery of the plot) will often reveal many more of these subtleties. (The effect may be compared to that of incidental music in films: without our conscious realizing it the music often helps us follow the mood of the story and its characters, nay, sometimes even explains it to us. But most often we don’t even notice the music.)
It goes without saying that the more the author & reader share in cultural literacy, i.e. their (literary) background and general perception of life, the easier it is to establish the intended subconscious ‘expectations’.
To prepare the reader for the ending and to ‘sneak in’ the additional meaning the author is usually very careful, even meticulous, when choosing his/her ‘title’, ‘setting’, ‘time’, etc. as each of these may be keys to the message. R.J. Meaddough III's short story On The Death of Tommy Grimes owes much of its credibility to its particular (cultural) setting and time - we would never accept it to take place in Denmark (not yet, anyway); and fearful little boys like Francis Morton of Graham Greene's The End of The Party are more often to be found in the Victorian England of a “stiff upper lip” than in, say, Tibet (though boys/girls there may have other fears).
In the same manner, characters should be full, rounded figures from whom we know what to expect (otherwise characterisation is pure guessing).
In the case of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover you should take notice of the details in the first pages that work as symbols for the underlying meaning. The story may be hard to believe if taken at face value after a quick and summary reading without any reflection; but if you pay attention to the protagonist’s state of mind as presented through the description of the setting (seen through her eyes), you will establish at least part of her mood yourself and be more ready to understand and accept her feelings and actions. When you picture her in this particular setting, the illusion may be so strong that you actually see things through her eyes yourself. Your background is different from hers, certainly, but you should be able to imagine her state of mind from what you know about similar characters in similar conditions. If not, the most obvious reason is, of course, that you have not (yet) been subject to circumstances like the ones in question; but if that leads you to discard this and other examples of human conduct on the grounds that this is “without relation to you and your life” you will not gain in wisdom.
So, the bottom line regarding "reading and understanding literature" may very well be that it prepares you for life by exemplifying situations and circumstances you may not (yet) have experienced yourself, but which you may relate to personal experience of similar value which in turn may add to your understanding of human behaviour (which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to have changed since Adam and Eve).