Fictional Short Story Readings


“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Fictional short stories are a captivating and essential genre within literature. Despite their brief lengths — or because of it — short stories offer a unique and concentrated narrative experience that can leave a lasting impact on readers.

Short stories are complete works of fiction, compact in length but rich in depth and meaning, taking us to different worlds, exploring the complexities of human nature, and evoking a range of emotions in just a few pages.

The history of short stories can be traced back to ancient oral traditions, where tales were shared and passed down through generations. However, it was during the 1800s and 1900s that the genre flourished and gained recognition as a distinct literary form. Influential authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and Anton Chekhov crafted masterpieces that showcased the inherent strengths of short storytelling.

One of the defining characteristics of short stories is their brevity. Unlike novels, which often span several hundred pages, short stories are crafted to convey a complete storyline within a limited word count. This brevity demands precision and economy of language from the author (sometimes approaching that of poetry), resulting in a concise and focused exploration of themes, characters, and plots.

Short stories also offer a wide variety of narrative structures and styles. From twist endings to nonlinear narratives, authors can experiment and push the boundaries of storytelling within their compact framework. This versatility allows for the exploration of diverse themes and genres, ranging from love and loss to science fiction and psychological suspense, including issues that, however fascinating, might not hold up over hundreds of pages.

Additionally, short stories often employ vivid imagery and symbolic language to evoke emotions and engage readers on a profound level. They can capture the essence of a moment or encapsulate the human experience in a condensed form. By focusing on a singular event or a brief period of time, short stories encourage readers to reflect and interpret the deeper meanings embedded within the stories.

In this Introduction to Literature course, we will delve into the world of fictional short stories, exploring the works of renowned authors and examining the various elements that contribute to their effectiveness. Through close reading and critical analysis, we may uncover the thematic layers, narrative techniques, and literary devices employed in these captivating stories. By studying this genre, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the artistry of storytelling and the profound impact that concise narratives can have on our understanding of the world around us.

Get ready to embark on a literary journey by carefully reading and taking notes on brief stories that you may find yourself reflecting on years (even decades) from now. Fictional short stories hold a unique place in the literary landscape, and by exploring this genre, we will develop a deeper understanding of the power and beauty of storytelling.


Introduction to the Readings: 

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894) is a thought-provoking short story that explores the theme of freedom and the limitations placed on women in society. Through the lens of Mrs. Mallard’s emotional journey, Chopin delves into the complexities of marriage, independence, and the transformative power of unexpected revelations.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1897) is a gripping detective story featuring the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusted companion Dr. John Watson. Set in Victorian England, the story follows Holmes as he investigates a puzzling case presented by a distressed client. With its atmosphere of suspense and mystery, this classic tale will immerse readers in a thrilling journey as they join Holmes and Watson in unraveling the secrets of the speckled band.

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (1905) is a heartwarming tale of sacrifice and love. Set during the holiday season, this story follows Jim and Della, a young couple with limited means who each make a significant sacrifice to buy a special gift for the other. O. Henry’s clever fable invites readers to reflect on the true meaning of giving and the depth of their commitment to one another.

James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a humorous and imaginative story that takes readers on a journey through the daydreams of the titular character. Thurber’s witty prose invites readers to explore the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the power of imagination in coping with the monotony of everyday life.

Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” (1941) is a poignant and symbolic tale of determination and resilience. Set in the rural South, the story follows Phoenix Jackson, an elderly African American woman, as she embarks on a challenging journey. Welty’s rich descriptions and evocative language shed light on themes of perseverance, racial inequality, and the enduring power of love.

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) is a powerful and emotionally charged short story that delves into the themes of identity, empathy, acceptance, and the power of music. Set in Harlem, New York, the story follows the complex relationship between two brothers. Through vivid descriptions and poignant dialogue, Baldwin explores the struggles of African Americans in a racially divided society and the role of art as a means of self-expression and liberation.

Langston Hughes’ “Thank You, Ma’am” (1958) is a heartwarming story that explores the transformative power of kindness and understanding. Set in a bustling urban environment, the story revolves around a brief encounter between Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones and Roger, a young boy attempting to steal her purse. Hughes explores the power of trust, empathy, and the potential for redemption.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) is a challenging story that explores the undercurrents of human nature and societal conformity. Jackson’s masterful storytelling prompts readers to question tradition and exposes the dangers of blind acceptance of societies’ dictums in seemingly ordinary communities.

Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father” (1972) is a poignant and reflective story that delves into the complexities of familial relationships and the power of storytelling. With her distinct voice and sharp wit, Paley invites readers to reflect on the ways in which our stories shape our understanding of the past and present — and may even shape our potential and hopes for the future. Are the stories we tell ourselves more important than we realize?

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973) is a compelling exploration of familial love, heritage, and cultural identity. Through the contrasting perspectives of two sisters, Dee and Maggie, Walker examines the tensions of preserving one’s roots amid an ever-changing world. With skillful characterization and vivid imagery, Walker delves into themes of authenticity, heritage, and the complexities of familial relationships.

Andy Weir’s “The Egg” (2009) is a thought-provoking and philosophical example of “speculative fiction,” a popular subset of fiction including science fiction, fantasy, and philosophical explorations which often take full advantage of short stories’ brevity. This very short story — told almost entirely through dialogue — offers an imaginary look at the interconnectedness of humanity. It is also an introduction to one of many literary metaphors we often find in stories, in this case, apotheosis (see also: Superman, Achilles, Harry Potter, Neo, Gandalf, Luke Skywalker, Ebenezer Scrooge, Edmond Dantès, Bella Swan, Jean Grey, and Capt. Jack Sparrow). As with many short stories, it tries to ask more questions than it answers, providing readers with ideas to ponder long after the reading is done.

Course Readings in Fictional Short Stories (CHOOSE FIVE OR MORE)

Other Readings:

Please take notes on all the readings and videos in the course, and use them to take a minute to review all your hard work, daily.