By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Many notable short stories focus on the rough passage from childhood to adulthood. Of course, the transition from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ does not happen overnight, and is not the result of a single epiphany of crucial moment, but writers of short fiction often distil the development from innocence to experience using such moments for dramatic or narrative effect.
Below, we select and introduce some of the best and most iconic coming-of-age short stories.
James Joyce, ‘Araby’.
This short story, part of Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, is narrated by a young boy, who describes the Dublin street where he lives. As the story progresses, the narrator realises that he has feelings for his neighbour’s sister and watches her from his house, daydreaming about her, wondering if she will ever speak to him. When they eventually talk, she suggests that he visit a bazaar, Araby, on her behalf as she cannot go herself.
The boy plans to buy her a present while at Araby, but he arrives late to the bazaar and, disappointed to find that most of the stalls are packing up, ends up buying nothing. Joyce uses the exotic bazaar as a symbol for the boy’s romantic hopes: hopes which must come to dust as he is forced to reconcile himself to the hard realities of life.
Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Garden Party’.
This 1920 story centres on the annual garden party held by the Sheridan family at their home, in New Zealand, Mansfield’s country of birth. One of the Sheridan children, Laura – a young woman on the cusp of adulthood – is looking forward to the party and is keen to become involved in the preparations.
However, while the Sheridans are preparing for their party, news arrives that a working-class man who lives in the poorer part of the village has been tragically killed when his horse reared up and threw him from his cart. Laura, filled with sympathy for the dead man and his family, pleads with her mother and siblings to cancel their garden party in light of the tragedy.
How can they hold a garden party, with music and guests and laughter, when a family nearby are in mourning for the death of their husband and father? The end of the story poses more questions than it answers, especially concerning Laura’s complex response to the man’s death.
John Steinbeck, ‘Flight’.
‘Flight’ is a 1938 short story by the American writer John Steinbeck, included in his short-story collection The Long Valley, which focuses on the Salinas Valley in California. The story is about a young man from rural California who goes into town and kills a drunken man in a fight; he has to flee to the mountains to avoid being captured and arrested, hence ‘Flight’.
It’s a story about the passage to manhood taken by a youth who, despite having all of the accoutrements and despite saying ‘I am a man’, fails to survive as a man in the wild and harsh world. With his father dead, and being the eldest child, Pepé is the ‘man’ of the house, but he is clearly ill-prepared for adult life and lacks the self-restraint or pragmatism required of his surroundings.
Alice Walker, ‘The Flowers’.
Many of the best coming-of-age stories are about a loss of innocence. In this 1973 story by Alice Walker, the American author best-known for The Color Purple, ten-year-old Myop loses her innocence when she discovers the body of a man who has been brutally killed.
Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Girl’.
This very short story, which runs to just a couple of pages, was originally published in the New Yorker in 1978 before being reprinted in Kincaid’s collection At the Bottom of the River.
The story comprises one single sentence of 650 words, and takes the form of a dialogue between a mother and her daughter. Although this is not stated in the story, the setting – as Kincaid has subsequently pointed out – is Antigua, the Caribbean island where she was born and raised.
The story is notable for its use of grammar: it consists of a single sentence spoken by a mother who is giving advice to her daughter. The mother’s monologue is briefly interrupted by the girl on just two occasions, but otherwise, this story consists of the mother’s words of wisdom to her daughter – about life, relationships, housekeeping, and the importance of reputation.
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.
Amy Tan, ‘Rules of the Game’.
‘Rules of the Game’ is one of the most popular stories which form part of Amy Tan’s 1989 book The Joy Luck Club. The story is about an eight-year-old Chinese American girl who teaches herself chess and becomes a child prodigy, winning many national tournaments.
But ‘Rules of the Game’ is also, like many stories in The Joy Luck Club, about a daughter’s fraught relationship with her mother; it is a coming-of-age story about a girl learning how to play the ‘game’ of adulthood, in a sense.
The story is narrated by Waverly Place Jong, a Chinese American woman who recounts her childhood as a young Chinese daughter of immigrants growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Jong is named after the street where she lived in a flat above a Chinese bakery, but she is known as Meimei, meaning ‘Little Sister’.
After she becomes a chess prodigy, Meimei dislikes the way her mother parades her around in town and shows off her famous daughter. Meimei confronts her about this, telling her mother that if she wants to show off, she should learn to play chess herself. When her mother grows angry at this, Meimei runs away through the streets.