Short stories have a unique ability to capture the essence of a moment or an idea in just a few pages. In only a few thousand words or less, they can convey entire fictional worlds, complete narrative arcs, complex characters, and vivid imagery.
Over the years, many authors have crafted short stories that have become classics, celebrated for their literary merit and their lasting impact on readers. You’re probably familiar with short story writers like Edgar Allan Poe, and many novelists have also ventured into short fiction. With so many great works to choose from, though, it can be overwhelming to find the best short stories to read.
In this blog post, I’ll introduce you to some of the best short stories of all time, in my opinion — from James Joyce’s slices of early 20th-century life to Lydia Davis’ thought-provoking flash fiction.
Whether you’re looking for a quick read or a deep dive into the world of short fiction, this blog post has something for you. Let’s dive in.
Top 10 best short stories you need to read right now
1. A Painful Case, by James Joyce
A Painful Case was originally published in Dubliners, James Joyce’s 1914 collection of short stories. Dubliners is hailed as one of the best short story books ever published and has influenced countless writers over the decades.
This short story focuses on a solitary man and the woman he befriends. Through the development of their friendship, Joyce explores the effects of loneliness and the difficulties of emotional intimacy.
“Her companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic. Many times she allowed the dark to fall upon them, refraining from lighting the lamp. The dark discreet room, their isolation, the music that still vibrated in their ears united them. This union exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own. The end of these discourses was that one night during which she had shown every sign of unusual excitement, Mrs. Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek.”
2. The Mice, by Lydia Davis
American writer and translator Lydia Davis is best known for her very short stories, what we call flash fiction today. In her stories, she succeeds at evoquing atmospheres and moods that reflect modern life.
The Mice is an elusive but thought-provoking short story about a messy home and the owners who are puzzled at the absence of mice in their dirty kitchen. Davis doesn’t offer us more context or a resolution, asking you to read again and think deeper to arrive at your own conclusions.
“Mice live in our walls but do not trouble our kitchen. We are pleased but cannot understand why they do not come into our kitchen where we have traps set, as they come into the kitchens of our neighbours. Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen. What makes this even more puzzling is that our house is much less tidy than the houses of our neighbours. There is more food lying about in our kitchen, more crumbs on the counters and filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets.”
Read the rest here.
3. The Pomegranate, by Yasunari Kawabata
Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata was also a prolific short story writer. His Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, which he wrote over 50 years, offer a delicate lyricism that transforms everyday situations into meditations on death, loneliness, love, jealousy, and the complexity of the human experience.
The Pomegranate starts with a strange occurrence. A woman finds the pomegranate tree in her garden completely bare, except for a pomegranate hanging from a branch. To me, this pomegranate the characters alternate from ignoring, noticing and avoiding stands for the loneliness that accompanies us in our everyday life, even when we’re too busy to see it.
If you’re new to Kawabata’s work, the short, crisp sentences in this work will stand out. But it gives the story a poetic rhythm that fits the topic.
“When your father died,” her mother said softly, “I was afraid to comb my hair. When I combed my hair I would forget what I was doing. When I came to myself it would be as if your father were waiting for me to finish.”
4. “I Only Came To Use The Phone,” by Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez is not only a renowned novelist — he’s also among the best contemporary short story writers, and one of the best representatives of the long tradition of the short story in Latin American literature.
“I Only Came To Use The Phone” was first published in Spanish in his 1992 short story collection, Strange Pilgrims. The story presents the hallmarks of magical realism — the blurry lines between reality and fantasy and a world that works mostly like ours, but with some fantastical elements, the characters accept as part of their world.
In this short story, María, a former cabaret musician, is desperate to call her husband after her car breaks down in the desert. In need of help, she hops on a bus only knowing she’ll be allowed to use the phone at its destination.
“I realize now as I write this that I never learned his real name, because in Barcelona we knew him only by his professional name: Saturno the Magician. He was a man of odd character and irredeemable social awkwardness, but María had more than enough of the tact and charm he lacked. It was she who led him by the hand through this community of great mysteries, where no man would have dreamed of calling after midnight to look for his wife. Saturno had, soon after he arrived, and he preferred to forget the incident. And so that night he settled for calling Zaragoza, where a sleepy grandmother told him with no alarm that María had said goodbye after lunch. He slept for just an hour at dawn. He had a muddled dream in which he saw María wearing a ragged wedding dress spattered with blood, and he woke with the fearful certainty that this time she had left him forever, to face the vast world without her.”
5. Report on the Thing, by Clarice Lispector
More than a short story, ‘Report on the Thing’ by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector is a stream-of-consciousness meditation in time, sharp observations about the emotions that shape our daily lives, and a commentary on God and the universe.
Lispector is a prominent figure in 20th-century Brazilian literature. The sharp portrayals of her characters’ emotional life and the sharpness and depth of her prose set her apart as one of the most fascinating contemporary writers.
“The Sveglia is from God. Divine human brains were used to capture whatever this watch should be. I am writing about it but have yet to see it. It will be the Encounter. Sveglia: Awake, woman, awake to see what must be seen. It is important to be awake in order to see. But it is also important to sleep in order to dream about the lack of time. Sveglia is the Object, it is the Thing, with a capital letter. I wonder, does the Sveglia see me? Yes, it does, as if I were another object. It recognizes that sometimes we too come from Mars.”
6. The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin
The Story of an Hour by 19th-century American writer Kate Chopin is a poignant look at the gender politics of her time.
This short story, first published in 1894, explores how the news of a husband’s death could elicit an unexpected reaction from a wife living a dull life devoid of freedom. Chopin offers no background on the couple, which allows for many interpretations of the story.
“Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will — as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.”
7. The Wife’s Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Looking for one of the best contemporary short stories with a twist? Then spend a few minutes reading this short story by speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. This story was first published in 1982 and tells the story of a happy couple and their eventual, unexpected fallout from the wife’s perspective.
“It was the moon, that’s what they say. It’s the moon’s fault, and the blood. It was in his father’s blood. I never knew his father, and now I wonder what become of him. He was from up Whitewater way, and had no kin around here. I always thought he went back there, but now I don’t know. There was some talk about him, tales that come out after what happened to my husband. It’s something runs in the blood, they say, and it may never come out, but if it does, it’s the change of the moon that does it. Always it happens in the dark of the moon, when everybody’s home and asleep. Something comes over the one that’s got the curse in his blood, they say, and he gets up because he can’t sleep, and goes out into the glaring sun, and goes off all alone — drawn to find those like him.”
9. The Feather Pillow, by Horacio Quiroga
The Feather Pillow, by Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, has nothing to envy the best short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
Quiroga has been credited with kickstarting the interest in the short story in Latin America in the early 20th century. While he also wrote novels and plays, his stronger work resides in his short stories, and he was serious about mastering the short format.
Inspired by modernist writers and two of the best short story authors, Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant, Quiroga explored the struggle of man with Nature, love, and their own mortality. Horror and fantasy blend in atmospheric, unsettling tales of horror and death.
“Alicia passed the autumn in this strange love nest. She had determined, however, to cast a veil over her former dreams and live like a sleeping beauty in the hostile house, trying not to think about anything until her husband arrived each evening.
It is not strange that she grew thin. She had a light attack of influenza that dragged on insidiously for days and days: after that Alicia’s health never returned. Finally one afternoon she was able to go into the garden, supported on her husband’s arm. She looked around listlessly.
Suddenly Jordan, with deep tenderness, ran his hand very slowly over her head, and Alicia instantly burst into sobs, throwing her arms around his neck. For a long time she cried out all the fears she had kept silent, redoubling her weeping at Jordan’s slightest caress. Then her sobs subsided, and she stood a long while, her face hidden in the hollow of his neck, not moving or speaking a word.
This was the last day Alicia was well enough to be up.”
9. The Flowers, by Alice Walker
In only nine paragraphs, American author Alice Walker presents us with a powerful story about a child’s metaphorical loss of innocence as she encounters cruelty and injustice for the first time. Walker’s precise use of symbolism carries you through a story that takes an unexpected turn, filling it with emotion and lyricism.
“Myop carried a short stick. She struck out at chickens she liked, and worked out the beat of a song on the fence around the pigpen. She felt light and good in the warm sun. She was ten, and nothing existed for her but her song, and the stick in her dark brown hand going tat-de-ta-ta-ta. Turning her back on her family’s sharecropper cabin, Myop walked along the fence till it ran into the stream. Around the stream, where the family got drinking water, ferns and wildflowers grew. Along the shallow banks pigs rooted. Myop watched the tiny white bubbles and the water that rose and slid away down the stream.”
10. The Southern Thruway, by Julio Cortázar
If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic, you might have felt like you’d never get to your destination. But what if the traffic jam lasted days or weeks? That’s exactly what happens in this imaginative short story by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar. Like other renowned South American writers, he was primarily a short story writer who gained recognition abroad with novels — in Cortázar’s case, with his groundbreaking novel, Hopscotch (1963).
The Southern Thruway is one of the most famous short stories by Cortázar. In this story, several characters get stuck in a gigantic traffic jam on a highway in France. The way the characters react as days pass on the highway serves as a commentary on the meaning of community and intimacy, and the way people form connections in emergency situations.
“At first the girl in the Dauphine had insisted on keeping track of the time, but the engineer in the Peugeot 404 didn’t care anymore. Anyone could look at his watch, but it was as if that time strapped to your right wrist or the beep beep on the radio were measuring something else—the time of those who haven’t made the blunder of trying to return to Paris on the southern thruway on a Sunday afternoon and, just past Fontainebleau, have had to slow down to a crawl, stop, six rows of cars on either side (everyone knows that on Sundays both sides of the thruway are reserved for those returning to the capital), start the engine, move three yards, stop, talk with the two nuns in the 2CV on the right, look in the rear-view mirror at the pale man driving the Caravelle, ironically envy the birdlike contentment of the couple in the Peugeot 203 (behind the girl’s Dauphine) playing with their little girl, joking, and eating cheese, or suffer the exasperated outbursts of the two boys in the Simca, in front of the Peugeot 404, and even get out at the stops to explore, not wandering off too far (no one knows when the cars up front will start moving again, and you have to run back so that those behind you won’t begin their battle of horn blasts and curses), and thus move up along a Taunus in front of the girl’s Dauphine—she is still watching the time—and exchange a few discouraged or mocking words with the two men traveling with the little blond boy, whose great joy at this particular moment is running his toy car over the seats and the rear ledge of the Taunus, or to dare and move up just a bit, since it doesn’t seem the cars up ahead will budge very soon, and observe with some pity the elderly couple in the ID Citroén that looks like a big purple bathtub with the little old man and woman swimming around inside, he resting his arms on the wheel with an air of resigned fatigue, she nibbling on an apple, fastidious rather than hungry.”
And there you have it! The top 10 best short stories I’ve ever read — ten different imaginary worlds to explore while you’re pressed for time, waiting at the doctor’s, or in a gigantic traffic jam.
What are the best short stories you have ever read? Let me know in the comments below!