(A version of a short essay first published in The Writer)

“Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.”

Why does this paragraph, the emotional hammer-blow of Faulkner’s classic story “A Rose for Emily,” still reverberate so forcefully after so many readings? Even detached from the story as it is here, we sense the author’s presence as he leads us on, gently planting that impression on the pillow to flit across our brain’s synapses and then drawing out the last sentence toward that inevitable, brutal word.

I know how the story will end. I’ve read it in countless anthologies, and the ending still works its magic. It’s not just suspense that holds me, I think, but something smaller, in the details themselves. A faint impression, floating specks of dust, that single, wavering strand. We’ve entered the realm of the small, the invisible, or the barely visible. It’s this realm I’d like to explore. How are small things treated in fiction, and what purposes do they serve?

Of course, it’s a truism that good writing depends on the details. Scan any page of fiction and it’s hard to miss at least some sensory details. But I’m not talking about just any details here. I’m talking about things that are physically small. How small? That can get tricky. Faulkner didn’t tell us the dimensions of Emily’s hair (he does tell us it’s long), but I don’t think anyone would argue that a strand of hair isn’t small. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that if perceiving the thing strains human senses (notice everyone leans forward as the hair is lifted), we’ll say it’s small.

Why should I care about something so trivial? you ask yourself. Small. Tiny. Minute. Humble. Unimportant. Petty. Unworthy. These are some of the synonyms for “small” according to my dog-eared thesaurus. And I think they say a lot. Our perspective is the only correct one. Things we can’t see don’t exist, unless they happen to make our eyes water and noses dribble, or if that small insignificant thing happens to be whining in our ears and is out for blood.

Today, over 300 years after Leeuwenhoek stuck that water droplet under his lens and saw his “wretched beasties,” with the knowledge that trillions of microbes within us do much of our inner housework for us, we’re all aware that small doesn’t always mean petty. And I think our literature bears this out. If we imagine a work of fiction as a house, small things aren’t just the clapboard and trim (though they often are), but they can be structural elements as well. A single hair can make our emotions peak. When sketching a character, that hair can add vertiginous perspective and depth.

Although small things are more commonly used in poetry, since they lend themselves to brief insights and emotional flashes more easily than to sustained narrative drama, I think in fiction they’ve been overlooked. Let’s separate a few of them out from their contexts—focusing on those that influence the plot or have particular resonance—and see if they’ll give up a few secrets you might put to use in your own fiction.

The many uses of small

Small things that irritate: a pebble in one’s shoe, the tree-root you trip over (again) in the front yard, a flicker of condescension in a friend’s smile. The seemingly insignificant intersects with one’s own path, forcing itself into view. In fiction, the small thing presses on the character’s consciousness, becomes as real as anything else. It threatens and agitates. It’s not an enemy—it’s just following instincts or physical laws, or it doesn’t show enough to judge by—but it isn’t exactly a friend either. It’s more out of place than anything else. This type is a convention in ghost stories, of course—the creak on the stairs, the waft of cold air, the mouse’s squeak. The small thing only seems small, but something larger and potentially dangerous looms behind it. In W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” the sergeant-major visiting the Whites’ house states, “To look at…it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth! It’s ordinariness is its perfect disguise, preventing the characters—though not the reader—from seeing its true nature.

Small things can be used to startle, to intensify an already troubled emotional field. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Ligeia,” after Rowena has died from a mysterious illness and the narrator stands by her corpse, he says, “At length it became evident that a slight, a very feeble, and a barely noticeable tinge of color had flushed up within the cheeks, and along the sunken small veins of the eyelids.” These details offer little reassurance, however, since his imagination and senses can deceive him. In an instant, these flickers of life are withdrawn: her “lips doubly shriveled and pinched up in the ghastly expression of death.”

There’s always an unstable element to the very small, since they might at any moment (like the Cheshire cat with his smile) wink themselves out of existence. Things at the edge of perception are suspect, dwelling in the realm of fancy, hallucination, or even madness.

Small things aren’t always unfriendly. They are often in league with the poor, the working class, the economically and socially powerless. Children notice them because they haven’t yet learned not to notice them. Small things can trigger the imagination, lending them special powers. They can provide means of escape, of discovery, of gaining prestige in the eyes of other children. They offer themselves as (relatively) safe companions. In his story “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” Yasunari Kawabata conveys a child’s values through both repetition and detail:

“Oh! It’s not a grasshopper. It’s a bell cricket.” The girl’s eyes shone as she looked at the small brown insect.

“It’s a bell cricket! It’s a bell cricket!” The children echoed in an envious chorus.

“It’s a bell cricket. It’s a bell cricket.”

By readjusting our own (possibly) jaded values, Kawabata makes us re-see familiar things, revealing their inherent drama. He makes them glow with an inner light, the light of potentiality, their power to influence people and events. They illuminate their own being as well as the things around them. A cricket is dramatic because the children believe it is; their belief and the author’s is what grants it narrative force. A small thing overcomes fiction’s creaky resistance to quiet, seemingly unremarkable moments.

Women in traditional roles are surrounded by the small, whether they be the needle and thread to sew the hem of a skirt or a dusty film forming on top of a curio shelf. But small things can also balk at tradition’s bounds. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the wallpaper’s patterns extend to the narrator an escape route, a place for her imagination to roam. The practical man (her husband) has no need for small things. What good are they to me? he asks. His wife’s mental retreat is ultimately an act of defiance: she won’t deny small things their imaginative pull, which artists and children naturally acknowledge.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the appearance of Faith’s pink ribbon is the turning point of the story: “But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.” At this moment, he knows in his heart she’s lost. As in “A Rose for Emily,” an emotional bang is announced with a whisper. The reader closes his eyes, expecting a blow, a figurative punch in the gut, only to feel something else: something so light and airy, it’s even more unsettling. The ribbon is animated by qualities Hawthorne grants it—Faith’s innocence and gentle grace. But the fact that it’s found in the woods shifts its meaning, as it takes on the devil’s subtle guise.

Sometimes, small things are noticed out of simple habit or need: the father panhandling on the street as his son, dizzy with hunger, strains to see the word “oysters” written on a restaurant’s tiny placard (Anton Chekhov’s “Oysters”), or the bellboy stooping down for the champagne cork in Raymond Carver’s “The Errand.”

People also turn to small things in times of stress or grief. Because of their scale, small things seem detached from our world and its problems. In fact, for those confronting serious illness or death, their lives reeling, small things can be a source of spiritual hope. In this case, a “small” thing can be a gesture, a word, or a sign. It’s small in relation to the universe but still deserving of loving attention.

In Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” in which a respectable prosecutor faces his death, small things take the form of both objects and small gestures. Once all hope of recovery fades, Ivan’s anguished thoughts insistently turn to his past, to the French plums and toys of his childhood, and he remembers a scene in which he and his brother were punished and their mother comforted them with tarts. Small things also reflect the concerns tragedy brings, when details are magnified to encompass life and death. Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, acts as a sick nurse for Ivan, selflessly caring for him. At one point Gerasim raises Ivan’s legs on a chair, then adds a cushion; finally, he props them on his shoulders to ease Ivan’s pain. When Ivan apologizes, Gerasim states, “Don’t you worry, Ivan Ilych. I’ll get sleep enough later on,” and, “If you weren’t sick it would be another matter, but as it is, why should I grudge a little trouble?” It’s a moment of human contact, a small reprieve from Ivan’s suffering. The implication at the end, with his newfound peace and redemption, is that spiritual meaning can be gathered from just such moments.

Let’s return for a moment to Emily’s strand of hair. Someone’s lifting it up, but as yet no one else has seen it. It’s still invisible, clouded by a faint haze of dust. Particles swirl in the room, in dim light that glows through rose curtains. We lean forward to get a better look. We see. And as much as we try, we’re unable to turn away.

(Copyright @ 2006 by Stephen Delaney)