Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
Here is a selection of some of the best, most anthologized short stories ever. No doubt you'll find many familiar titles here, but I hope you also discover something new.
These narratives are sterling examples of the short story form. They have endured, bringing enjoyment to readers for many years.
Most of them are part of the literary canon. You'll have no trouble finding explanatory notes and analysis for these titles if you want to go deeper. But if that's not for you, don't let it put you off reading these stories. They can be enjoyed on their own.
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
Della, a young married woman, has managed to save a dollar and eighty-seven cents. It's Christmas tomorrow; she wants to get her husband a nice present. She's distraught, knowing that she's well short of the amount she needs. Before going out, she looks at her long, beautiful hair in the mirror.
This story can be read in the preview of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories. (37% into preview)
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
A small village is preparing for its annual summer tradition—a lottery. It's a very important event, done to ensure a good harvest. The children gather excitedly, followed by the adults. When everyone is present, the village's civic leader, Mr. Summers, gets things started.
This story can be read in the preview of Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories. (10% in)
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
A man claims that a disease had sharpened his senses and that he isn't mad. He was seized with a desire to kill an old man. The man hadn't wronged him in any way, nor was material gain his motive. It was the old man's eye—pale blue with a film over it—that drove him to act.
Read The Tell-Tale Heart
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A woman going through some difficulties is confined to a room in a colonial mansion. Both her husband and brother are physicians, and they agree on the diagnosis—nervous depression and a slight hysterical tendency. She's to have no excitement and do no work until she's better. She disagrees, but all she can do is a little secret writing.
Read The Yellow Wallpaper
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
— Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Bet by Anton Chekhov
At a dinner party the guests debate the morality of capital punishment and life- imprisonment. The strongest views on each side are held by a banker and lawyer. The banker is willing to wager two million that the lawyer couldn't last in a cell for five years.
Read The Bet
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To Build a Fire by Jack London
A man is traveling in the Yukon in the bitter cold. He's headed for his acquaintances at a base camp where there will be a fire and hot food. He's a careful traveler, and he's accompanied by a husky. It's colder than the man thinks. It's so cold that the husky knows instinctively they shouldn't be far from home.
Read To Build a Fire
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
A man and woman wait for the express from Barcelona to Madrid. They drink beer and make some strained conversation. It eventually turns to an operation that the woman is considering. The man thinks it's the best thing to do, but the woman resists.
The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
Mathilde is a young woman, married to a man with a minor government posting. She suffers constantly from a lack of luxury. When her husband surprises her with an invitation to a ball, she responds crossly. She doesn't have anything suitable to wear. Her husband gives her his little savings to get a new dress. Another issue soon arises.
Read The Necklace
She had no dowry, no expectations, no way of being known, understood, loved, married by any rich and distinguished man; so she let herself be married to a little clerk of the Ministry of Public Instruction.
— Guy de Maupassant
Araby by James Joyce
A boy is infatuated with the older girl who lives across the street. He thinks of her all the time, and tries to see her from his window. One day she speaks to him, asking if he's going to Araby, the bazaar. She can't go; he says he will bring her a souvenir.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain
The narrator goes to Simon Wheeler to get the story of Jim Smiley. He was a betting man with uncommonly good luck. He had various animals he made money on. His most famous gambling story involved a frog he trained to jump.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
A grandmother lives with her son, Bailey, and his family. She's against the trip to Florida that they're planning. She wants to go to Tennessee instead. A notorious criminal is loose, and reports place him around Florida. The family stays firm in their plans. The grandmother isn't against the trip enough to stay home.
Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.
— Flannery O'Connor
The Lady With the Dog by Anton Chekhov
Dmitri Gurov is in Yalta, away from his wife. He is serially unfaithful. He sees a new woman walking along the promenade with a little dog. He decides it would be good to make her acquaintance. He knows from experience that relationships with women bring complications. Each new adventure makes him forget this, and he plunges ahead. They meet each other one evening at a restaurant. They strike up a conversation.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce
A man, Fahrquhar, is on a bridge in northern Alabama, his wrists bound behind his back. He has a rope around his neck and is guarded by Federal officers. He's a civilian, but was involved in a mission for the Confederacy. His last thoughts are of his family. The signal is given to let him hang.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
In response to a letter from his old friend, the narrator visits Roderick Usher at his house. Upon approaching the mansion, he feels a profound gloom and dreariness. It's showing the signs of some neglect. In the letter, Roderick had complained of a mental disturbance. When the narrator is shown into the house, he notes immediately that his old friend doesn't look well.
We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher!
— Edgar Allan Poe
The Dead by James Joyce
Miss Kate and Miss Julia Morkan are hosting their annual dinner and dance. The event is always a resounding success. The hostesses are anticipating the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, their nephew who will be giving a speech; and Freddy Mallins, a friend who might be drunk. Gabriel is a bit nervous about his speech.
This story runs longer than the others, but it's well worth the investment.
Read The Dead
In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
On an invitation from the Commandant, a Traveler is visiting a penal colony. In particular, he's being shown the special apparatus used there. It consists of a Bed, an Inscriber, and a Harrow, each of which serves an unpleasant purpose. This device and the whole philosophy of the penal colony are the work of the previous Commandant.
Read In the Penal Colony
Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov
A young man's parents are trying to decide what to bring him for his birthday. This is difficult—their son is incurably deranged and takes exception to common items. Their trip is fraught with problems. The subway is delayed, the bus is late and crowded, and it rains on their walk to the sanitarium. When they arrive, they're informed of another incident.
Read Symbols and Signs (New Yorker)
Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world.
— Vladimir Nabokov
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J. D. Salinger
Muriel and Seymour Glass are staying at an expensive resort in Florida. Muriel calls her mother, who is very worried that she hadn't called sooner. She's concerned about Seymour's behavior. Her husband talked to a psychiatrist who believes Seymour could lose control. Muriel says there's a psychiatrist at the hotel, so there's nothing to worry about.
The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
Mrs. Mallard is informed that her husband has been killed in a train accident. She weeps wildly and retires to her room alone. Her sister and her husband's friend wait for her with concern.
Read The Story of an Hour
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
When Emily Grierson dies, her whole town attends her funeral. The narrator recounts memorable incidents from her life. Her father wouldn't let her marry. She also refused to pay any taxes in her town. After her father's death, she started keeping company with Homer Barron, a Northerner whose work brought him into town, but he left her.
Read A Rose for Emily
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town . . .
— William Faulkner
The Swimmer by John Cheever
Neddy Merrill is sitting by the Westerhazys' pool with a drink. Several guests comment that they've had too much to drink. His own house is about eight miles south. He realizes that he could make his way home by swimming all the pools along the way. The trip starts well; he's greeted by friends and offered drinks.
Read The Swimmer
Vanka by Anton Chekhov
Vanka, a young boy, has been apprenticed to a shoemaker for three months. On Christmas eve, he stays up late and secretly writes a letter to his grandfather. He describes some of the mistreatment he endures, and implores his grandfather to take him in.
The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
Akakiy is a titular councilor, where he makes whatever copies his department requires. He does his work very well, but he's disrespected but his colleagues. Work is the main thing in his life. He lives simply, as his salary doesn't allow for any extras. The cold weather makes Akakiy inspect his overcoat. It's worn thin in a few places, and doesn't offer much protection. He decides to get it mended.
This is another longer one, but it flew by for me.
Read The Overcoat
When and how he entered the department, and who appointed him, no one could remember. However much the directors and chiefs of all kinds were changed, he was always to be seen in the same place, the same attitude, the same occupation; so that it was afterwards affirmed that he had been born in undress uniform with a bald head.
— Nikolai Gogol
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates
Connie is a pretty fifteen-year-old who's vain about her looks. She gets compared unfavorably to her older sister, June, who is steady and plain. Connie's father is away working a lot and doesn't pay her much attention. Her best friend's father drives her group of friends to the shopping center in town. On one of her outings, she sees a guy with shaggy black hair. Later, he turns up unexpectedly.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Pelayo is clearing out the crabs from his house. It had rained for three days. His child is sick, presumably from the smell of the crabs. While returning home, he sees something moving in his courtyard. He finds an old man lying face down in the mud. He struggles to get up but can't, seemingly weighed down by his wings. There's speculation that he could be a castaway, or possibly, an angel.
Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Goodman Brown leaves his home at sunset. His wife, Faith, asks him to stay the night, to put off his journey until sunrise. He says he must go now. He heads into the forest. Eventually, he meets a man who's been expecting him. They travel on together. It's gloomy, and Goodman knows there could be evil nearby.
Read Young Goodman Brown
He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind.
— Nathaniel Hawthorne
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a mongoose, fights a great war. It starts when a summer flood washes him from his burrow onto a garden path. The family takes him in, revives him, and takes care of him. He stays around, inspecting the house and garden. He makes the acquaintance of the garden's inhabitants. He finds the garden to be a fertile hunting ground.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
Harry and Helen are on safari in Africa. Harry is suffering with gangrene in his leg, but he says there's no pain. They're waiting for a plane to arrive. Helen wants to help, but there's nothing to be done. They talk and Harry drinks. He thinks about some experiences from his past, including the war, his relationship with Helen, and his writing.
Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
A lawyer specializing in legal documents hires Bartleby as a copyist. The lawyer is a safe, even-tempered man, and does good business. His other employees have some eccentricities; he hopes Bartleby will be a calming influence on the office. Bartleby begins his new job with impressive energy, copying huge quantities of documents and working long hours.
This is the last longer selection on the page. As with the other long ones, reading Bartleby is time well spent.
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion.
— Herman Melville
A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell
In the town of Dixon County, Martha Hale is called away from her household duties. The sheriff and his wife are waiting outside. Martha and her husband are going with them to the Wrights' house. When they arrive, the county attorney asks Mr. Hale to recount what had happened yesterday morning. While out on an errand, he had stopped by the Wright house to talk to John Wright. Mrs. Wright told him he couldn't talk to John—he's dead.
Read A Jury of Her Peers
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
Rainsford and Whitney, two crew members on a ship, talk about a nearby island that sailors have a superstitious dread of. They're headed for Rio to do some jaguar hunting. To Rainsford, there are two classes—the hunters and the hunted. He's glad to be a hunter. Rainsford stays up by himself to smoke on the afterdeck. As he relaxes, he startled by a sound—gunshots in the distance.
The Rocking-Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence
Paul is told by his mother that they're poor because his father is unlucky. In truth, the family isn't poor; they live beyond their means. There is a constant feeling in the household that they need more money. After his mother explains the importance of luck, Paul declares that he is lucky. He can tell his mother doesn't take him seriously. He becomes obsessed with attracting luck.
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!
— D. H. Lawrence
The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges
Dr. Tsun is a German agent in the UK. An MI5 agent, Richard Madden, has compromised his handler, Viktor Runeberg. Tsun knows his time is limited. He has discovered the location of a British artillery park, which he must pass to his government before he's captured. He formulates a plan, getting the information he needs from the phone directory.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber
Walter Mitty drives his wife around on her errands. He's imagining himself as a Navy pilot navigating a storm when his wife snaps him back to reality. He drops his wife off to get her hair done. His adventures continue.
A Christmas Tree and a Wedding by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
After just attending a wedding, the narrator is reminded of a Christmas party from five years ago. He had noticed an honored guest, Mastakovitch, who was catered to by the hosts. He also noticed an eleven-year-old girl who, word had it, had a dowry of three hundred thousand roubles. At an opportune moment, Mastokovitch made the girl's acquaintance.
Our host and hostess said no end of polite things to him, waited on him hand and foot, pressed him to drink, flattered him, brought their visitors up to be introduced to him . . .
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Worn Path by Eudora Welty
An elderly woman, Phoenix Jackson, embarks on a difficult journey on foot through the woods in December. She walks slowly and carries a cane. She will get tired and face obstacles, but she has a good reason for the trip.
Read A Worn Path
A Bottle of Perrier by Edith Wharton
Medford, from a school of archaeology, visits an acquaintance, Henry, at his home in the desert. Henry is an amateur archaeologist. When he arrives, Medford finds Henry has been called away to some unexplored ruins. The head servant, Gosling, says his master will be back shortly. In the meantime, he can make himself at home.
Read A Bottle of Perrier
- Visit Short Stories for Middle Schoolers for the best selections for students.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Joyce Bou Charaa from Lebanon on April 19, 2020:
Short stories are amazing. Great article.
Allan D’Sa on April 01, 2020:
Very good classical and loved stories. Thank you very much for the effort to compile these.
Jacqueline Stamp from UK on July 11, 2019:
An excellent selection Howard, many of which I've read and some of which I will now take the time to explore; thank you for your recommendations. As you include the magnificent 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, you may be interested in my article from 24th October 2016 on the role of voice in this story.