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Access Type

WSU Access

Date of Award

January 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

renée c. hoogland


In “Words [Don’t Always] Fail Me: The Complexities of Gender and Genre in Short Fiction by Female Authors” I trace the development of American short stories written by female authors from the 1930s into the contemporary era. I argue that the forms of the stories crafted by Carson McCullers, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Lydia Davis, and Jennifer Egan allow for the critique of repressive social and cultural values present in America during the time the texts were written. While past theorists of the short story have focused on brevity and unity as mainstays of the genre, I look to how the form pushes back against such a description. With postmodern literary theory in mind, I focus on the ways in which short stories break down the stability of traditional “unified” narrative frameworks by pushing the limits and conventions of the short story form as well as mainstream ideologies about gender, race, and class. Taking this idea one step further, I argue that such mainstream ideologies can be understood as meta-narratives, or grand-narratives, as discussed and theorized by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) and the short stories are little narrative or petit recîts which challenge them. According to Lyotard, meta-narratives (also referred to as grand narratives) aim to provide comprehensive theories of various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon universal values and conceptions of “truth.” Meta-narratives often function to legitimize power, authority, and social customs, and consequently, Lyotard suggests that the postmodern age is defined by our collective “incredulity” toward such metanarratives, stressing how they have lost their potency or usefulness, and that they will be replaced “petits récits” (or small narratives). According to Lyotard little narratives “throw off” the grand narrative by bringing into focus the singular event.

My understanding of the short story genre defines short texts as petit récits and each chapter brings attention to how the authors challenge previously established norms for the short story form as well as repressive ideologies. Through analyses and close readings of a number of short texts, I demonstrate how the lack of restrictions in the form allows the writers to craft and mold it into various shapes and sub-genres. The stories by each author are transgressive and experimental for their respective literary periods, moving the form beyond the limitations of past examples. The aim of this project is not to position the short story in opposition to the novel or to suggest that the short story is either dead or resurrected. The project discusses what the short story can accomplish for the writers by looking at the transformation of the form over a century in light of the larger historical context of the story genre, ending in a reflection on the newest contemporary modes of transmitting stories.

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