Writers of short stories have said a great deal about relationships of various kinds, and although the novel may be the preferred form for teasing out the complexities and conflicts of a long-term relationship, the short-story form can also provide writers with enough space to pinpoint a particular critical moment in a relationship, a moment which is then shown to have great significance.
Below, we introduce some of the best short stories which are about relationships in one way or another.
Kate Chopin, ‘The Kiss’.
This story is another variation on what is probably the central theme of Kate Chopin’s stories: the choices that are open to women, and how these are often not really choices at all. Chopin wrote ‘The Kiss’ in a single day (19 September 1894) and it was published in Vogue magazine the following June. Chopin was paid just $10 for the story.
The story is about a woman who is passionately attracted to one man but who wishes to marry another, who is a millionaire; one day, the man she loves kisses her in full view of the wealthy man she wants to marry.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘An Elopement’.
‘An Elopement’ is a short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), first published in the San Francisco Call in July 1893. Running to just a few pages, ‘An Elopement’ is about a young woman who disappears from the small town where she lived with her mother and aunt, and is believed to have run off to get married to an unknown man.
O. Henry, ‘Witches’ Loaves’.
‘Witches’ Loaves’ is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). His stories are characterised by their irony and by their surprise twist endings. Both of these elements became something of a signature feature, and ‘Witches’ Loaves’ certainly carries a twist ending.
The story is about an unmarried woman running a bakery, who takes a shine to one of her regular customers, a man who she deduces is an artist.
James Joyce, ‘A Painful Case’.
‘A Painful Case’ appears around two-thirds of the way into James Joyce’s 1914 Dubliners collection, and since Joyce roughly ordered the stories from ‘youth’ to ‘old age’, ‘A Painful Case’ is a story about the onset of late middle age, a time when people have perhaps left it too late to seek love and marriage – or, if they have these things, they will come to realise that they fail to live up to youthful expectation.
This story introduces us to James Duffy, a bachelor who lives on the outskirts of Dublin. He meets a married woman named Emily Sinico, and she makes it clear that she wishes to be more than good friends with him. But Duffy recoils in horror, only (spoiler alert) to learn a short while afterwards that Mrs Sinico has died. This news prompts an epiphany …
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Second Best’.
This story was first published in 1914. It is not among the most famous of D. H. Lawrence’s short stories, but its neglect remains puzzling. It is a disturbing and powerful story about first love and growing up and coming to terms with life’s realities, although fans of moles (the animals, that is) may want to give it a wide birth.
Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Sweat’.
Published in 1926, this story by one of the leading African-American female writers of the early twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). The story 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 …
F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Ice Palace’.
‘The Ice Palace’ is a short story by the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1920. The story is about a southern belle who becomes engaged to a man from the North; however, she almost freezes to death in an ice palace at a winter carnival and this leads her to rethink the engagement. Among other things, ‘The Ice Palace’ is about the North-South divide in the United States and the differing attitudes and outlooks Northerners and Southerners have.
Ernest Hemingway, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’.
Hemingway was an advocate for what he called the ‘iceberg’ method, where much of the story remains beneath the surface, with only the ‘tip’ of the issue being explicitly stated. This 1927 story is one of Hemingway’s best-known and most critically acclaimed short stories. In just five pages, Hemingway uses his trademark style – plain dialogue and description offered in short, clipped sentences – to expose an unspoken subject that a man and a young woman are discussing.
The girl’s comment about the Spanish hills looking like white elephants is mere filler, an example of ‘treading water’ as she and her male companion summon up the courage to address the dread topic of their conversation.
Langston Hughes, ‘Red-Headed Baby’.
Although he is probably better known as a poet, Langston Hughes (1902-67), a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance, also wrote some of the finest short stories of the early twentieth century, and ‘Red-Headed Baby’ is one of his best.
‘Red-Headed Baby’ was published in Hughes’ 1934 collection The Ways of White Folks, which examines the relations between white Americans and African Americans with sympathy and humour. In just a few pages, Hughes sketches out an encounter between a red-headed man and his former girlfriend, an African-American woman living in Florida.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’.
Let’s conclude this pick of classic stories about relationships with a short story by J. D. Salinger, first published in 1951. The story details a phone conversation between two men, Arthur and Lee, following a party.
Arthur is worried that his wife is having an affair and Lee attempts to calm down his friend over the phone, encouraging him to calm down and wait for his wife to get home. But there’s a twist – subtly delivered – towards the end of this story …