Friendship is such a universal and central theme to all of our lives, that picking just a small number of the best short stories about such a broad theme is always going to be a challenge. However, the following stories are by some of the finest masters of the short story form, and all of them touch upon friendship. Indeed, friendship is the central theme in many of them.
Henry James, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’.
In this longer tale from 1903 – it’s so long it is sometimes categorised as a ‘novella’ – Henry James uses his interest in delay to explore a friendship between a man and a woman which never turns into a romantic relationship because the man, John Marcher, fears that something terrible is going to befall him. What follows is one of James’s finest stories about death and how irrational fear of death at every turn can prompt us to hide away from living.
His stalwart and patient female companion, May, stands by his side and tries to help him make sense of this mysterious and imprecise threat which he feels hangs over him. Will this ‘beast’ lurking in the jungle of his unconscious ever be unleashed? Perhaps James’s finest example of a subversion of the traditional love story.
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Devoted Friend’.
This is one of the fairy tales for children written by the Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It was published in the 1888 collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
‘The Devoted Friend’ is about a Miller named Hugh, who professes to be devoted to his friend Hans, but in actual fact he uses Hans and insists on his performing endless favours for him without Hugh giving anything back in return. The story is about a very one-sided friendship, and evokes sympathy for poor Hans as we realise how selfish Hugh is towards his kind friend. A friend in need and all that …
O. Henry, ‘Telemachus, Friend’.
The (very) short stories of the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), are characterised by their irony, their occasional sentimentality, and by their surprise twist endings.
The narrator of this story is returning from a hunting trip in New Mexico when he heard the ensuing tale from a hotel proprietor named Telemachus Hicks. When the narrator pointed to Hicks’ mutilated ear, Hicks said that the ear was a relic of true friendship …
We get a somewhat more cynical take on friendship in this story from Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), who wrote under the pseudonym Saki. A young woman named Suzanne wants her wealthy cousin Bertram to buy her an expensive birthday present. Her friend Eleanor devises a plan to help steer this relative towards buying Suzanne a silver-fox stole: the ‘fur’ of the story’s title.
James Joyce, ‘After the Race’.
This story, from James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, focuses on what happens after a motorcar race has finished, over the rest of the day – and throughout the same night. The protagonist, Jimmy Doyle, and his European friends walk around Dublin, go to dinner at a hotel, talk about politics and music among other things, and then catch the train to the harbour where they go to a yacht and proceed to get drunk dancing and playing cards.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’.
‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ is, fundamentally, a story about lies and deception, in which three people involved in an eternal love triangle show themselves all to be dishonest in their dealings with each other.
Lee and Joanie are being dishonest to Arthur by conducting an affair behind his back. Meanwhile, Arthur, too, is capable of deceit, phoning his friend back and pretending that his wife has come home after all. The friendship between Arthur and Lee forms the centrepiece of this Salinger story.
Grace Paley, ‘Friends’.
Paley (1922-2007) offers us a tale of three female friends, Ann, Susan, and Faith. Faith narrates the story of the three friends’ visit to see their friend Selena, who is dying, and its aftermath, which sees the three central characters reminiscing about their lives and their friendship together.
Donald Barthelme, ‘Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby’.
The American writer Donald Barthelme (1931-89) is sometimes labelled as a ‘postmodernist’ writer (a label he was not entirely comfortable with, but reluctantly accepted) and, occasionally, ‘metafiction’ (a label he was less happy with). Many of his stories are deliberately absurdist, with hilarious but sometimes unnerving results.
This short story was first published in his 1976 anthology, Amateurs. The unsettling story sees a group of friends discussing how to hang their friend for committing an unnamed offence.
Alice Munro, ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’.
Alice Munro (born 1931) is one of the leading contemporary writers of short stories. This story, set in Ontario in Canada, focuses on the friendship between Sabitha and Edith. Edith convinces Sabitha to forge love letters from Sabitha’s father to Johanna, the unmarried housekeeper for Sabitha. But Edith and Sabitha’s cruel trick will have terrible ramifications for poor Johanna.
Raymond Carver, ‘Where I’m Calling From’
Let’s conclude this pick of classic friendship stories with a short story by the American writer Raymond Carver (1938-88), originally published in the New Yorker in 1982.
The story is about a man trying to give up alcohol dependency in a rehabilitation centre, and his attempts to call his estranged wife and current girlfriend, hence the story’s title, ‘Where I’m Calling From’. The story takes in the themes of loneliness, alienation, and the need for human connection and friendship.