By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are some of the best short stories by female writers? Women have been making their mark on the short story form since the form became popular in the nineteenth century, and many notable female practitioners of the short story, such as Katherine Mansfield and Kate Chopin, were among the first to take the story in new directions, replacing plot with character and focusing on the internal lives of the (mostly female) protagonists.
Below, we select and introduce fifteen classic short stories written by women. These stories range from a few pages to more than twenty, but all are masterpieces of the short story form which can be read in a lunch break or before bed of an evening.
1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, an 1892 short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), has the structure and style of a diary. This is in keeping with what the female narrator tells us: that she can only write down her experiences when her husband John is not around, since he has forbidden her to write until she is well again, believing it will overexcite her. Through a series of short instalments, we learn more about the narrator’s situation, and her treatment at the hands of her doctor husband and her sister-in-law.
One reason why the story is so unsettling is that it plays with established Gothic horror conventions and then subverts them, in order to expose the misguided medical practices used in an attempt to ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ women who are suffering from mental or nervous disorders. It has become a popular feminist text about the male mistreatment of women.
2. George Egerton, ‘A Cross Line’.
Before Woolf and Mansfield (see below), there was George Egerton (1859-1945), whose 1890s collections Keynotes and Discords took women’s writing into new, more experimental territory (inspired by, among others, the works of Nietzsche and Knut Hamsun).
In ‘A Cross Line’ (1893), Egerton presents us with a strong woman who is married to a rather feminine husband, and who longs for something more out of life. Towards the end of the story, she learns (spoiler alert) that she is expecting a baby, but Egerton never directly tells us this, dropping hints and clues instead and letting us infer the rest.
3. 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.
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.
This story by the American writer Willa Cather was first published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1904 before being collected in Cather’s collection The Troll Garden the following year. In just a few pages, Cather sketches out a wasted life where a woman, who left Boston to go and live on a remote farm, experiences the music of Wagner for the first time when she returns to the city, and realises how much she has missed out on.
‘A Wagner Matinée’ is a moving story about isolation, loss, and the distance between frontier life versus the metropolitan life of the American city.
5. Katherine Anne Porter, ‘He’.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote just one novel and fewer than thirty short stories, yet she is regarded as an important twentieth-century American writer, with ‘He’ among her most celebrated and critically acclaimed works. An important theme of Porter’s work is the search for meaning in a modern and increasingly materialist world.
This 1927 story is about a poor American family. The mother, Mrs Whipple, loves her second son best of all: a boy who is identified only as ‘He’ and who appears to be mentally and physically weak.
6. Virginia Woolf, ‘The Mark on the Wall’.
The first two novels the English modernist writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) published were more conventional than her work that would follow later. In many ways, she found her distinctive voice when writing short stories such as this, which was published in 1917.
This short piece is narrated by someone who recalls noticing a mark on the wall of their house. But the story is not really ‘about’ the mark on the wall, but rather what it prompts the narrator to think about, muse upon and recollect.
As well as speculating on what the mark on the wall might be – a small hole, or perhaps a leftover rose leaf – the narrator’s mind wanders to much bigger questions and meditations, such as the nature of life, where Shakespeare found his inspiration, and even what the afterlife might be like.
7. Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Garden Party’.
The New-Zealand-born Mansfield (1888-1923) never wrote a full-length novel, but she was a prolific writer of short stories whose work was admired by Virginia Woolf, among many others. ‘The Garden Party’ is a 1920 short story about a rich upper-middle-class family whose daughter, Laura, is shocked when a working-class man from the nearby village dies in an accident.
Although Laura insists her mother cancel their garden party as a mark of respect, the rest of her family disagree. So Laura sets off to pay her own respects to the dead, in a moving and powerful story about coming to terms with death.
8. Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Sweat’.
Published in 1926, this story by one of the leading African-American female writers of the early twentieth century is set in Florida and focuses on Delia, a washerwoman, and Sykes, her unemployed husband. Sykes mistreats his wife, and resents the fact that she has to clean the clothes of ‘white folks’.
But Delia will take delicious revenge on her husband when he attempts to harm her …
9. Eudora Welty, ‘A Worn Path’.
One of the most celebrated stories by Eudora Welty (1909-2001), first published in the Southern Review in 1937, is ‘A Worn Path’. The story details the journey an elderly black woman makes into town one Christmas time, in order to get some medicine for her grandson. The journey is subtly infused with suggestions of the epic descent into the underworld found in classical poetry, elevating the protagonist’s journey above the everyday.
There is some ambiguity in the story surrounding whether her grandson is even still alive, making this story potentially a tragedy about one lonely elderly woman’s inability to let go. The ‘path’ she walks is a metaphor for life, and for carrying on.
10. Shirley Jackson, ‘The Lottery’.
This is the best-known story of the American writer Shirley Jackson, who has inspired, among others, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Joanne Harris. Published in the New Yorker in 1948, the story is about a village where an annual lottery is drawn. However, the fate of the person who draws the ‘winning’ slip is only revealed at the end of the story in a dark twist.
Jackson’s story, in some ways a descendant of the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, forces us to address some unpleasant aspects of human nature, such as people’s obedience to authority and tradition and their willingness to carry out evil acts in the name of superstition.
11. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) wrote both science fiction and fantasy, although some of her short stories are perhaps best labelled as ‘speculative fiction’, because they rely less on hard science than on imagined places and landscapes. These places are then used to explore some intriguing and troubling philosophical and ethical issues.
This story, from 1973, is set in the fictional city of Omelas (Le Guin saw ‘Salem, O.’ – as in Oregon – reflected in her car’s rear-view mirror and liked the name), an ideal society in which everyone is happy. Or rather, almost everyone – for the happiness of the people of Omelas is apparently dependent on the suffering of a scapegoat, a child who is kept locked up in miserable conditions so that the rest of the city can enjoy health, wealth, and happiness. We discuss the rich symbolism of this story in more detail in our longer analysis of it.
12. Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.
This 1966 story was inspired by a series of real-life murders and dedicated to Bob Dylan, whose song ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ was another inspiration on the story. The story is about a fifteen-year-old girl who is approached by a sinister older man (though he claims he’s her age) and demands that she come out for a drive with him. Although Connie refuses, it’s clear that the man isn’t going to give up, and her own family may be at risk. A truly dark and unsettling story from a modern master of the short story.
13. Angela Carter, ‘The Bloody Chamber’.
The title story of Carter’s most famous collection and long enough to be called a novella, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ takes its cue from the old French folk tale of Bluebeard, the man who murdered his successive wives and kept their bodies locked up in his castle.
The Bluebeard of Carter’s tale is refigured as a French Marquis, who marries a teenage bride. He has already married three times before, and his fourth wife discovers the fates of his previous wives when she takes the forbidden key and opens his ‘bloody chamber’ while he is away on business.
14. Margaret Atwood, ‘Happy Endings’.
Nowadays, Atwood (born 1939) is best-known for her novels, but she also wrote many poems and short stories earlier in her career. ‘Happy Endings’ was first published in 1983 and features six variations on the same characters, scenarios labelled A to F, all of which end in death.
Although it’s usually categorised as a short story, Atwood herself has written (like Woolf before her) of how ‘Happy Endings’ evolved as something that wasn’t quite a short story, nor yet a prose poem, but something distinct from both.
15. Lydia Davis, ‘The Caterpillar’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best short stories by women with a very short story by the American writer Lydia Davis (born 1947). This story is about memory, consideration, and the small and ordinarily overlooked, focusing on someone who finds a caterpillar in her bed one morning and then drops it while trying to carry it downstairs and outside. The joy of a Lydia Davis story is found partly in the way she opens up language to subtle, multiple meanings.