What makes for a great short story? Thrift, action, and a twist. Each short tale in my list is told economically, moves forward briskly, and zings the reader at the end.
This list was inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who was greater, Plato or Aristotle? Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish just like these classically-trained achievers: Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, and William Gladstone. Read more about Gutenberg’s curriculum here.
Without further delay, Tim’s Top Ten Short Stories.
10. “The Grasshopper,” Anton Chekhov (1860). A husband suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, though he never confronts her. His good manners sicken her and justify, in her mind, her affair. “That man,” she thinks, “is killing me with his magnanimity!” Read the story here. Chekhov might be better remembered for his plays Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, but he was a master of the short-story. (Side note: Incredible that Russia produced three of history’s greatest fiction writers—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov—within a span of a generation.)
9. “The Birthmark,” Nathanial Hawthorne (1843). The second-oldest story on my list might be the most contemporary. Leon Kass commenced President Bush’s 2002 Bioethics Council with a discussion of Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” the story of a man who causes the death of his beloved by trying to raise her beyond mortal perfection.
8. “The Overcoat,” Nikolai Gogol (1842). Gogol was overshadowed by his offspring, the Russian Trinity of storytelling (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov). But he was their godfather. This story prompted Dosteovsky’s famous remark, “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’.”
7. “The Diamond Necklace,” Guy de Maupaussant (1884). De Maupaussant is considered France’s greatest short story writer. The “Necklace” tells the story of Mathilde Loisel, a commoner who imagines herself in high society. (Spoiler alert.) Mathilde borrows a diamond necklace to wear when attending a regal party. When she loses the necklace, she and her husband mortgage everything to recoup the cost.
6. “A Small, Good Thing,” Raymond Carver (1989). Carver fused Anton Chekhov’s detached style (no moralizing!) with Hemingway’s thriftiness (no adjectives!) to become an American short-story master. His eye for detail and his ear for dialogue might be without peer in the twentieth century. This story has two published endings. The first, originally titled “The Bath,” ends bleakly. But “A Small, Good Thing” offers a glimpse of hope. (Two side notes: Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, three hours north of Gutenberg. Also: Director Robert Altman wove Carver’s short stories together into a haunting but almost forgotten movie called Short Cuts.)
5. “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson (1948). Shirley Jackson didn’t dwell long on writing “The Lottery.” After a morning trip to the grocery, she dashed off “The Lottery” in two hours. When The New Yorker published it three weeks later, readers exploded. No New Yorker story ever received such heated response. Hundreds of pounds of letters poured in; hundreds cancelled their subscriptions. Few understood Jackson’s point, and she refused to interview or explain. Now, years after the furor, “The Lottery” has settled its place among America’s most famous short stories. (Side note: Jackson’s story touches a troubling thought: Troubled societies relieve tension through scapegoating. Philosopher Rene Girard says the Judeo-Christian tradition warns against and explicitly rejects this social tendency.)
4. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor (1955). “‘She would of been a good woman’, The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” So speaks God’s curious mouthpiece in this cruel classic. The Catholic O’Connor rebelled against the flimsy spirituality of the Protestant South. Since those Protestants had split the body from the spirit, any good Catholic novelist knew her duty: reunite the body and soul through violence. (Side note: Paul Elie details friendship and correspondence between O’Connor and three other mid-century Catholics in a wonderful four-part biography called The Life You Save May Be Your Own.)
3. “Araby,” James Joyce (1914). A heartbreaking coming-of-age story by the most celebrated author of the twentieth century. Joyce’s writing is always lyrical. Examples: “the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness”; her “soft rope of hair tossed from side to side.” John Updike’s lovely short story “A&P” is a retelling of “Araby” in 1960s America.
2. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Ernest Hemingway (1936). When a wounded lion charges Francis, he panics. In camp afterwards, his wife mocks him and eyes Wilson, their guide. Quintessential Hemingway in both subject and style. Short stories maximized Hemingway’s strengths: word-thrift and narrative subtext. His thrifty style was honed writing cable at the Kansas City Star. His use of subtext is the work of a genius craftsman. Nothing seems to happen, but the action churns below the text. “Francis Macomber” is a perfect example. Reading it still makes my palms sweat.
1. “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry (1906).The famous, bittersweet story was written by American William Sydney Porter who used the pen-name O. Henry. “Magi” tells the story of Jim and Delia, a young married couple who are deeply in love. Despite having very little money, each parts with a prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other. If you’ve not read the story, I’ll not ruin it for you. Read it here.