By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Marriage is a key theme in literature, of course: a fact which need hardly surprise us when we reflect that many people spend the majority of their lives married to somebody else. Marriage also touches upon other prominent themes, including love, commitment, having children, lust, conflict, and even, in some cases, hatred.
Below, we introduce some of the finest short stories which focus on marriages of various kinds. Here, we find marriages in jeopardy, marriages involving spouses tempted to commit infidelity, happy marriages, and numerous other variations on the theme of marriage, explored using the short story form.
Kate Chopin, ‘A Respectable Woman’.
Let’s begin this pick of classic short stories about marriage with an 1894 story by the American writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904). The collection in which this story appeared met with some hostile reviews when it was first published, with one critic objecting to the ‘unnecessary coarseness’ of some of the subject-matter.
‘A Respectable Woman’ is about a woman whose husband invites his old college friend to stay with them on their plantation. Despite being certain she will dislike the man, she discovers that she is strangely attracted to him and grows confused about her feelings. Can she remain faithful to her husband?
O. Henry, ‘The Gift of the Magi’.
This is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). The story opens on Christmas Eve: Jim and Della are a married couple living in a modest furnished flat in New York.
The story is about how this happily married couple live in fairly miserable poverty, but their marriage remains strong thanks to their determination to make the other one happy, through buying them the one gift the other has always wanted. Unfortunately, their plans to surprise each other don’t go quite according to plan …
James Joyce, ‘The Dead’.
The concluding story in Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, ‘The Dead’ is almost the longest, and qualifies almost as a ‘novella’ as much as a short story. Focusing on a party which Gabriel Conroy and his wife attend around New Year, ‘The Dead’ homes in on the little events that occur at the party – the conversations, the dances, the speeches, the snide remarks – which gradually reveal not only the state of Gabriel’s own life but the state of Dublin, and Ireland, as Joyce saw it.
The story ends with Gabriel discovering a secret his wife has been keeping since before they were married, making marriage another important theme of this masterly piece of fiction.
Katherine Mansfield, ‘Bliss’.
Published in 1918, ‘Bliss’ focuses on a young wife and mother, Bertha Young, on the day she organises a dinner party for friends. Her new friend, a beautiful socialite named Pearl, attends the party, and Mansfield (1888-1923) subtly hints at a complex range of emotions and moods felt by her female protagonist. Is Bertha romantically attracted to Pearl? Will she ever truly desire her husband?
But at the end of the dinner party, and the end of the story, Bertha will learn something which will throw her whole world into disarray. A wonderful short story by one of the greatest modernist writers working in the form. We discuss this story in more detail here.
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 …
Ernest Hemingway, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
This is a popular Ernest Hemingway story with a decidedly atypical un-Hemingwayesque protagonist. First published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1936, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ is about a married American couple on safari in Africa with their English guide. The husband has a failure of nerve when faced with a lion during one of their hunts, and his wife loses respect for him.
Courage and cowardice are central, mutually complementary themes in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’. The story is framed by Francis’ initial failure of nerve, although Hemingway chooses to begin the story in the aftermath of this event, and then reveal what happened to us only later, during a flashback.
John Steinbeck, ‘The Chrysanthemums’.
‘The Chrysanthemums’ (1937) is probably John Steinbeck’s best-known and most highly regarded short story. The story is set during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s. A housewife’s chance encounter with a travelling tinker leads to an awakening in her which makes her question her own marriage.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’.
This is 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 …
John Cheever, ‘The Enormous Radio’.
This is a short story by the American writer John Cheever, first published in the New Yorker in 1947 and then collected in The Enormous Radio and Other Stories in 1953. A magic realist story, ‘The Enormous Radio’ is about a middle-aged married couple who buy a radio which allows them to listen in on their neighbours’ conversations.
The story has a straightforward plot, and the effectiveness of the story lies chiefly in its details, its symbolism, and its delineation of character as Cheever explores the quiet frustrations and dissatisfactions of marriage in middle-class America.
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. A few years before she published The Bloody Chamber, Carter (1940-92) had translated Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, and her familiarity with the deeper meanings of the tale is evident in this long story.
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 sure enough, 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.