By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
One very short story – often attributed to Ernest Hemingway but actually the work of another writer – is just six words long: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’. And some of the greatest fiction-writers of the last two centuries have written memorable short stories which stretch to little more than a few pages: short enough to be read in a coffee break.
Below, we introduce ten classic short stories – very short stories – from some of the finest authors in the literary canon. All of the stories can be read online: follow the links provided to read them.
1. Anton Chekhov, ‘The Student’.
A key device in many Chekhov short stories is the epiphany: a sudden realisation or moment of enlightenment experienced by one of the story’s characters, usually the protagonist. In many ways, the epiphany can be said to perform a similar function to the plot twist or revelation at the end of a more traditional (i.e., plot-driven) short story.
In ‘The Student’, one of Chekhov’s shortest stories, a young seminary is travelling home on Good Friday. He meets two women, a mother and her daughter who have both been widowed, and joins them around their fire, and the conversation turns to the Gospels, since it is Easter.
The student begins telling them about the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, and this tale reawakens painful memories in the two women. Here, the emphasis is more on character and emotion than plot and incident, as we discuss in our analysis of the story.
2. Kate Chopin, ‘The Story of an Hour’.
Some short stories can say all they need to do in just a few pages, and Kate Chopin’s three-page 1894 story ‘The Story of an Hour’ (sometimes known as ‘The Dream of an Hour’) is a classic example. Yet those three pages remain tantalisingly ambiguous, perhaps because so little is said, so much merely hinted at.
Chopin’s short story is a subtle, studied analysis of death, marriage, and personal wishes. Written in April 1894 and originally published in Vogue in December of that year, the story focuses on an hour in the life of a married woman who has just learnt that her husband has apparently died.
We have analysed this story here.
3. Saki, ‘The Lumber-Room’.
Saki, born Hector Hugh Munro, is one of the wittiest short-story writers in English, a missing link between Wilde and Wodehouse. Yet he remains undervalued.
‘The Lumber Room’ is a classic short story about a child who is too clever for the adults: a mischievous boy, Nicholas, seeks to outwit his aunt so he can gain access to the lumber-room with its hidden treasures and curiosities. The story is also about the nature of obedience and the limited view of the world adults have, when contrasted with the child’s more expansive and imaginative outlook.
We have analysed this wonderful story here.
4. Virginia Woolf, ‘A Haunted House’.
In the pioneering short stories Woolf wrote in the period from around 1917 until 1921, she not only developed her own ‘modernist’ voice but also offered a commentary on other literary forms and styles.
This two-page story is a good example: we find a woman living in a house which is apparently haunted by a ghostly couple. The story that emerges is less frightening than it is touching, and as much romance as horror, as Woolf provides a modernist, stream-of-consciousness take on the conventional ghost story, all in a brief vignette of around 600 words.
We have analysed the story here.
5. Franz Kafka, ‘Before the Law’.
This is a very short story or parable by the German-language Bohemian (now Czech) author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). It was published in 1915 and later included in Kafka’s (posthumously published) novel The Trial, where its meaning is discussed by the protagonist Josef K. and a priest he meets in a cathedral. ‘Before the Law’ has inspired numerous critical interpretations and prompted many a debate, in its turn, about what it means.
A man approaches a doorkeeper and asks to be admitted to ‘the law’. The doorkeeper tells him he cannot grant him access, but that it may be possible to admit the man later. We won’t say what happens next, but the parable is typically Kafkaesque – in so far as anything else – in its comic absurdism and depiction of the futility of human endeavour. The story is often interpreted as a tale about religion.
We discuss the story in more depth in our summary and analysis of it.
6. Katherine Mansfield, ‘Miss Brill’.
‘Miss Brill’ is a short story by the New-Zealand-born modernist writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), published in the Athenaeum in 1920 and then included in Mansfield’s 1922 collection The Garden Party and Other Stories.
Every Sunday, a lady named Miss Brill goes to the local public gardens to hear the band play and to sit in the gardens and people-watch. On the particular Sunday that is the focus of the story, the unmarried Miss Brill comes to realise that she, and all of the other people gathered in the gardens, appear to be in a sort of play. But when she overhears a young couple making apparently disparaging remarks about her, she appears to undergo an epiphany …
We discuss the story in more detail in our analysis of it.
7. Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’.
This short tale was published in Hemingway’s early 1925 collection In Our Time; he wrote ‘Cat in the Rain’ for his wife Hadley while they were living in Paris. She wanted to get a cat, but he said they were too poor.
‘Cat in the Rain’ was supposedly inspired by a specific event in 1923 when, while staying at the home of Ezra Pound (a famous cat-lover) in Rapallo, Italy, Hadley befriended a stray kitten. We find a woman in a hotel seeking to rescue a cat she spots in the rain outside, but the story takes in deeper longings, too.
We have offered an analysis of this story in a separate post.
8. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is one of the great short-fiction writers of the twentieth century, and many of his classic tales stretch to just a few pages.
‘The Lottery in Babylon’, first published in 1941, is among his most ‘Kafkaesque’ tales. When he wrote the story, Borges was working a rather unfulfilling library job refilling the bookshelves, and ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ reflects the sense of futility in all human endeavour which Borges was feeling at this time. We are told of a lottery in the (fictional) land of Babylon, which becomes compulsory, and which delivers both rewards and punishments to its lucky (or unlucky) participants. Although Borges’ story is satirical and humorous, it also taps into the horrific realities of totalitarian regimes.
Find out more about this story by reading our analysis of it.
9. Lydia Davis, ‘On the Train’.
Very few stories in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis are longer than a few pages, and many are a single page, like prose haiku or short vignettes. Her stories are usually less about narrative and more about observation, seemingly insignificant details, and a refusal to sentimentalise. Indeed, her stories are almost clinical in their precision and emotional tautness.
We’ve opted for ‘On the Train’ as it’s one of the few Davis stories available online via the link above, but we could have chosen any number of short stories from the collected edition mentioned above. Highly recommended.
10. David Foster Wallace, ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’.
This is the shortest story on this list. Published on ‘page zero’ of Wallace’s 2000 collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, it is another vignette, about how the way we behave is ultimately motivated by our longing to be liked by others.
The rise of social media has only brought home even more clearly what Wallace brilliantly and wittily reveals here: that much of our behaviour is purely performative, with the individual having lost any sense of authenticity or true identity.