The Best Short Stories in Classic Literature

The Best Short Stories in Classic Literature

Short stories can be an overlooked area when it comes to literature, and opinions as to why can fall on both sides. Too short, and liable to build up to nothing. Less payoff than a full-length novel. A bit pretentious, even! But short stories can be little gems, gateways to writers and genres you normally might not read. 

If you are not currently a big reader but would like to read more, you can sample some of the heavyweights of classic literature, like William Faulkner or Leo Tolstoy in a more accessible way. If you’re not sure what you want to read, they have a low level of commitment, enabling you to read around many different authors in a short amount of time. 

Here we have compiled a list of some of the best short stories in classic literature to start you on your short story journey, across a variety of genres and countries. Which ones have read, or would include on this list? Comment below!

Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” 

Read if you like…magical realism, humour, surrealist stories


Whilst this is technically a “novella” and not a short story, it deserves to be on this list. This is the bizarre tale of Gregor Samsa, a young man who wakes up one morning to find he has transformed into a giant bug. Seemingly stuck forever as as insect, his family lock him in his room and he spends his days crawling the walls and floors, desperately clinging onto his memories of being human, as his family become less and less interested in his wellbeing.

The story has been subject to numerous interpretations as to its deeper symbolic meaning, including whether or not the “metamorphisis” at the centre of the story is not Gregor, but his sister Greta, who matures into a young woman during the course of the tale. 


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Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Read if you like…mysteries, murder, detective stories


A bone-chilling tale of murder and madness, this Gothic tale is Poe’s best known story. Too much detail will give away the major plot points. But suffice to say, it’s first-person narrator, a highly nervous and sensitive man, is plotting to kill the with which he lives, and determined to convince us that he is entirely sane. What follows results in the protagonists un-doing, in the most horrific way. 

With his Gothic stories and early detective stories, Poe helped to established a genre and paved the way for all the horror and mystery writers who would come after him.


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Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace”

Read if you like…France, Madam Bovary, frivolous women


Maupassant wrote stories about the way our destinies can seem determined by forces outside our control, such as our social class, or even the impulses within ourselves that we can’t always reign in. “The Necklace” is the story of Mathilde, who yearns for a life far above her station. Her husband is a low-level clerk, but she imagines herself as an aristocratic lady. They are invited to ball, and while her husband buys her an expensive gown, she is distraught that she has no fine jewellery to wear with it. Her husband suggests she borrow something from her well-to-do friend, who loans her a diamond necklace. What subsequently happens is shocking and will leave you reeling. It is a devastating story that doesn’t need murder or mayhem to leave you horrified. 


 Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard To Find”

 Read if you like…Shirley Jackson, Southern Gothic, mayhem

 This is another blood-curdling story that will leave you breathless and taking a long hard look at the humans around you. O’Connor wrote unflinching stories of people behaving badly in strange and uncomfortable ways, evoking both her Catholic and isolated Southern upbringing. It is the story of a family on a road trip from Atlanta down to Florida. The grandmother enjoys holding forth  on a variety of topics and it is clear she considers herself morally superior and owner of a kind of hypocritical religiosity. Through a series of events, the family have a minor car accident, witnessed by an escaped convict, The Misfit. The denouement is unpleasant and unforgettable.  

If you have avoided reading short stories because you find them dull or predictable, O’Connor never fails to shock or surprise. She looked at society around her with a cold unflinching gaze, in a voice ahead of her time. 


       Truman Capote, “A Christmas                                  Memory”

 Read if you like…nostalgia, feeling cozy, the passage of time


If you have lost your taste for murder and senseless destruction, you might enjoy Capote’s gentle retelling of a childhood memory. Despite it’s sweet subject matter, Capote somehow manages to bypass the sacherine and reach the beating heart of the narrator. Buddy is seven years old and lives in a house with several older relatives. His companion is an aunt, Sook, who is thought to be developmentally disabled. Buddy and Sook save up their pennies for Christmas treats and to make each other their gifts. They share simple pleasures, such as cutting down and tree and make decorations. Despite their simple surroundings and the lack of interest paid to them by other relatives, they are happy in their companionship. But it is not without sadness, as it is to be the last Christmas they spend together before Buddy is sent off to school. 

The sense of loneliness and loss that permeate the story are no fabrications. Capote said that the story was based on his elderly cousin, whom he said was a “a genius”.



 F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Winter Dreams”

 Read if you like…old money, The Great Gatsby, doomed romances


If you liked the movie of the “Great Gatsby” but don’t feel like committing to reading a whole novel, this short story served as some of basis of the themes he expanded on in Gatsby. His described “Winter Dreams’ as the first draft of the Gatsby idea. It was also based on his own doomed romance with the socialite Ginevra King, who dropped him on her father’s insistence that poor boys shouldn’t imagine they could marry rich girls. As in the story, it’s protagonist is Dexter Green, a middle-class young man with lofty aspirations. At eleven years old, he meets the wealthy Judy Jones at the golf club where he works as a caddie. Years later, he returns to the club as a successful man and strikes up a romance with the now grown up and beautiful Judy. Sadly, he is being played, as she is simultaneously courting the affections of several other young man. Yet she continues to haunt him over the subsequent years, and he can’t give up the dream so easily.

It is not so much as a tale of thwarted romance as it is of social class, and how one’s status can set the course for much of your life, despite your best efforts. Dexter becomes successful, yet the woman of his dreams always remains just a little out of reach. 


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 Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants” 

Read if you like…long pauses, hidden meaning, deep sadness


No one could write a short story with so little as could Hemingway. This story is a masterclass on writing a story that never reveals its subject matter, but allowing us to connect the dots between each powerful pause and unsaid word. Like many of his stories, this one is set in Spain. The two protagonists are at a train station, waiting for a train to Madrid. We can surmise they are involved, and they are discussing a decision they must make imminently, the “white elephant” of the story. While the language is ambiguous, what they are talking about becomes clear very fast. What follows is a tense and painful conversation, and as real as anything that has ever been written. 

Some people don’t enjoy Hemingway’s style. If you have read any of his other works and don’t particularly like them, you probably won’t enjoy this one either. His singular style has as many detractors as admirers. But if you appreciate his sparse prose, you will love this short story.


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Comments (1):

Chris on

Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily is hard to omit.

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