Short stories are such a wonderful medium for telling stories and exploring interesting ideas, and I love encouraging people to read more of them. So, to celebrate the amazingness of short stories, here’s my list of The Best Short Stories of All Time!
For anyone who wants to check these out, I’ve set it up as a shareable and printable reading challenge! See it, pin it and print it below!
Scroll down for links to the full text of these stories, commentary, etc. For some of the stories, I’ve included a tiny bit of commentary, but it’s mostly meant as a jumping off point to think about the stories. There’s definitely much, much more to analyze and ponder over.
These are my favorites, but I would love to hear about your favorite short stories, too! There’s so many more I wanted to include, so I might do a Part II to this post later. Drop a message below if you have any ideas to share!
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery is one of the most well known short stories of all time for good reason. It’s got an eeriness that creeps up on you, but isn’t clear entirely why until the very last paragraph. It received a ton of responses after its initial publication in The New Yorker, but Jackson declined to provide an explanation for the story.
The kids are out for the summer, so they gather stones in preparation. Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves, the postmaster, run the lottery. Each family stands together and a black box is brought out. The original box was lost a long time ago and now the town uses slips of paper instead of wood chips as was originally used.
They make a list of all the families in the village. Tessie Hutchinson joins late because she had forgotten today was the day of the lottery.
Mr. Summers reminds everyone of the rules. He’ll read the names and the head of each family will come up and draw. No one should look at the slips until all the names are drawn.
Mrs. Adams talks about towns who have given up the lottery, but Old Man Warner thinks that’ll lead to people living in caves and is nothing but trouble.
After the slips are drawn, the word gets around that Bill Hutchinson “got it,” though Tess argues that he didn’t have enough time to select a slip of paper. They confirm the number of children that Bill has, three, since his daughter draws with her husband’s family.
Mr. Graves produces five slips of paper for the Hutchinson family (parents and three kids). Their names are called out, they each draw slips and then they look at them. Tessie has drawn the slip with a black dot. Mr. Graves urges the crowd to hurry up.
Tessie stands in the middle of a clearing as the villages rush towards her, and she is hit in the head with a stone. The rest of the village follows, with everyone throwing stones at her as well.
We know from the description of the box and of how things have changed over time that it’s a ritual that they’ve always done. Old Man Warner represents the voice of the old generations, who seems to think that breaking from their tradition would be a descent into uncivilized behavior.
Jackson is questioning the ethics and the value of blindly following traditions.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
I’ve always loved Poe’s short stories, and The Tell-Tale Heart is probably my favorite. It’s about a tormented, paranoid man who is racked with guilt.
The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
The Necklace is a classic short story that’s been adapted to stage and film many times. It’s a story about vanity and honesty.
The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
You may have seen or heard of the not-great movie adaptation of The Sound of Thunder that came out a while ago, but please don’t let that dissuade you from reading this classic science fiction short story which deals with some of the same themes as the concept of Chaos Theory (more popularly known as the Butterfly Effect).
Confido by Kurt Vonnegut
A lot of people love the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, but Confido is the one that has always stuck with me. Especially considering the way we consume news and information now and how easy it is to block out contrary opinions, I think this story is more relevant than ever.
If you think about all these people that go on toxic forums and feed their minds with garbage until they end up committing heinous crimes, you can see how Vonnegut saw it all coming way before his time. The ending of the story is especially relevant, too. For people who support platforms that allow toxic voices to proliferate for profit, I hope someone sends them this short story to read.
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
This is a survival story, of sorts.
The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
The Monkey’s Paw is a story about the supernatural. It involves a monkey’s paw and three wishes. The uncertainty left over by the end is both unsettling and absolutely perfect for this story.
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
This is kind of a sweet, maybe a bit saccharine Christmas story. A lot of the short stories on this list are a bit errm…depressing for lack of a better word, so I wanted to include something a little bit more positive.
They’re Made Out of Meat by Terry Bisson
This is kind of a cute, fun short story that I’ve always really enjoyed. Once you start reading it, the title makes more sense.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper is a seminal work of Gothic and feminist literature. It’s about a woman, Jane, who is moved into a room with yellow wallpaper.
Happy Endings by Margaret Atwood
In terms of format, Happy Endings is a little unconventional. It’s a story with six possible endings. Or just one, depending on how you see it.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemmingway
This is probably one of the most “literary” stories on this list, meaning that at first glance the story’s meaning isn’t as easily apparent. If you just skim through it, it probably feels very forgettable.
With Hemingway’s short stories, a lot of the meaning is found in between the lines, in the things that are unsaid and the things that are implied.
Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy
This is a moral fable by Leo Tolstoy. There’s also a lovely and beautifully illustrated children’s book by Jon J. Muth based on this story.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A beautiful, tragic, hopeful story.
The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde
The Nightingale and the Rose is a fable-like story about true love and sometimes the lack thereof. It’s a story about sacrifice, materialism, love and lust.
The Haunted House by Virginia Woolf
This is not your typical Haunted House story, but that’s what makes it fun.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin
This is a relatively short but haunting story. It’s about a peaceful and idyllic city, but its near-perfect existence comes at a steep price. Definitely a must-read that makes you think.
To Build A Fire by Jack London
This is actually one of the few stories on this list I don’t personally love, but so many people list this as one of their favorite short stories that I felt compelled to include it. It’s about a man surviving in the extreme cold of the Yukon Territory along with his dog.
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger
This is a story that’s sad and quietly tragic. Given that it’s Salinger, you can kind of anticipate the themes of alienation and focus on the innocence of children.
As the story starts, Muriel and her mother converse but neither seems to really hear what the other person is saying, and they each feel like the other person isn’t listening. Muriel’s mother is concerned about the behavior of Muriel’s husband, Seymore, but more with their possible effect on Muriel but Muriel is more focused on other things.
Meanwhile, Seymore is back from the war and it seems clear his odd behaviors are cries for help which aren’t being heard. Seymore has given Muriel a book that has some type of importance to him, but it is in German so she can’t understand it.
Sybil, a little girl, asks her mother about Seymore, but her mother thinks she is being silly by repeating “see more glass”. Sybil runs off to find Seymore, who knows her dad. The two chat, but given that Sybil is a toddler, it’s not exactly a meeting of minds.
Seymore explains whats going on with him to Sybil through a metaphor about bananafish, but she doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand. He explains that the fish go into a hole to eat bananas and eat too much and get fat. Due to their behavior, they no longer fit through the hole to get outside and die. (Seymore was at war, and it’s implied that due to the things he’s done, he no longer fits outside of war and he can’t get out of that place.)
It also seems like after the war the only things he really understands or trusts is simple things like to be kind to dogs and small children. He accosts a woman on the elevator and accuses her of staring at his feet.
Given the events of the story, it’s unsurprising and yet surprising at the end when he kills himself.
The Price by Neil Gaiman
I’ve loved this short story ever since I first came across it. It’s about a black cat. A must for cat lovers.
The Veldt by Ray Bradbury
The Veldt is a classic science fiction story as well as being a perfect blend of both horror and science fiction, two genres where Ray Bradbury shines. The Veldt is a cautionary tale about technology as well as the cruelty of children.
The Cask of Amontellado by Edgar Allen Poe
I included another creepy and fun Edgar Allen Poe tale on this list, but he has so many great ones I thought he was worth including twice. The Cask of Amontellado is a story of revenge.
The cellar of Il Buco restaurant in New York City is the location that people claim the story is based upon. I’ve been to the restaurant, and they allowed us to go down to the cellar, but it was more upscale and classy than scary, so who knows. I will say that the food at Il Buco is amazing, and the restaurant itself is gorgeous.
The Lady, or the Tiger? by Frank Stockton
This is a great discussion story, as it’s open ended to an extent. It’s a story that presents a difficult, interesting question.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
This is the response to every movie you’ve ever watched where a villain on the verge of death finally decides to do the right thing. One line in particular in A Good Man is Hard to Find is pure brilliance: “‘She could have been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.'”
Lots to think about in this short story. Read it!
The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado
“He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt.” This is a newer story, but it’s one that stuck in my mind long after reading it. Also be sure to read a great discussion of it on Electric Lit.
Those are my picks, but if you didn’t see your favorite short story, drop a comment below to share it with others! I’m contemplating doing a Part II since there are still so many great stories that I left off this list, so I’d love more ideas!