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In which the chicken survives

I recently read a story in a literary periodical – it doesn't really matter which story or which periodical – that introduced a chicken in the first paragraph. Though there was no hint of violence in the description of this chicken, I knew it would be a dead chicken within a few thousand words. 

How did I know the chicken would die? In literary fiction, the chicken always dies. If there is a barn full of chickens, plural chickens die. If you are a reader of literary fiction, take a moment to survey in your memory stories with chickens; are they not all, or almost all, dead chickens? 

Why must chickens die in literary fiction? I guess it might have something to do with the anatomy of the real bird; a chicken is a convenient animal to kill compared with a pig, cow, sheep, goose, or Old MacDonald himself; so when a character, and especially if that character is a woman or a child, needs to lash out in their rage or their temporary insanity or their whatever, it can be practical if the author provides chickens, because a person without great physical strength or relevant prior experience can massacre chickens barehanded without much foreplanning. 

The chickens of literary fiction don’t always die in an emotional outburst; many are indifferently killed for supper. In real life, one chicken is needed to feed between four and eight diners one meal; so I suppose chickens may be killed frequently on the page because they are killed frequently. 

Yet I think that the preponderance of dead chickens in literary fiction isn’t just because chickens are killed easily and often. Literary chicken death is a convention because it is a convention. Blame/credit MacDuff? I have no idea how or when this began. 

Like most conventions, The Chicken Always Dies usually works best when it works with its own conventionality. One story that does this startlingly well begins with the line “Once upon a time there was a little girl who observed chickens so closely that she got to know their souls and innermost yearnings.” The author (in translation) is Clarise Lipspector. Because it’s her and because it’s chickens, you know where this is going; yet, you don’t know where this is going. 

Another way an author can use conventions is to not conform to them. Surely there are stories out there already in which the chicken survives, though I can’t think of one I’ve read. I would love to read a well-executed literary story in which the chicken survives. 

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