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  • Gemma James

5 Must-Read Short Stories: Taken From An Unexexpected Summer Class

I have a confession: I hate short stories. This might come as a shock, especially considering I’m an English major. Yet, something about sitting down and reading a short story has always made me seethe with contempt.

Frankly, I’m not even sure what it is about short stories that I find so adverse. Perhaps it’s rooted in my childhood as a gifted kid – years spent trying to show off and read the longest or largest books. Maybe it’s the pressure to read the entire story in one sitting because it is really just that short. Or it might just be the stigma that short stories are either underdeveloped or overly pretentious. Regardless of the reasoning, I’ve avoided short stories for as long as I can remember.

This summer, however, I took a few classes. One of them was a class entirely focused on short stories. I was entirely unaware of this fact when signing up for the class, which makes me sound incredibly irresponsible. In my defense, the course was labeled as a study of prose fiction, which could be so many different things. By the time I realized it, however, it was too late to bother switching classes.

Much to my surprise, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the class. Despite my disdain for short stories, I couldn’t help but find myself captivated by the selection offered in this class. While we read so many great stories, here are my top five that I think that everyone should read, especially those who are not huge fans of short stories. Who knows, maybe they’ll change your mind.

“The Mother” by Lydia Davis

“The Mother” is so short that, admittedly, I had a hard time believing that it even qualified as a story. That being said, it does a beautiful job of creating a twist ending. “The Mother” is the perfect example of the importance of tone, as it utilizes tone to build its message and even to catch the reader off guard.

“The Mother” is very short and, in some ways, ambiguous, however, this gives it a sense of universality. While it is definitely a somewhat eerie, sad tale, it can be applied and interpreted in so many different ways, making it an easy and fun read.

“The Necklace”by Guy de Maupassant

“The Necklace” tells the story of a very vain woman who ends up making a costly mistake in the quest for status. I found this story to be very amusing. It has beautiful imagery and wonderful characterization, plus an ironic twist ending. The moral of this story is very important and especially relevant in today’s world. Despite all of these deeper elements, however, the story reads in a very simple manner. I could easily see this being a story my mother would have read to me at bedtime.

My favorite aspect of “The Necklace” was all of the detail and characterization that was built into the imagery. So much can be understood just in the description of Madame Loisel alone. Especially in a short story, this descriptive nature is a very rare but crucial skill.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin and "The Ones Who Stay and Fight" by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in more English classes than I can even remember. It’s a classic, and rightfully so. That being said, I’ve paired it on this list with Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”. I know, this technically makes this list six stories instead of five. Yet I truly believe that these two stories should be read together.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” each beg the reader to consider the idea of a utopia, or perhaps, a dystopia. What does it mean to build this type of society? And what sacrifices have to be made? Each of these stories builds a rich world that you end up feeling entirely immersed in. They each have their own shocking elements, however, leaving you questioning the sacrifices made for these societies, and whether or not they are worthwhile or “right”.

“The Book of Martha” by Octavia Butler

“The Book of Martha” poses a difficult and fascinating question: if you were in charge of creating one change to save humanity, what would that be? When Martha meets God, she is given this opportunity, however, it is a very daunting task. This story not only questions the idea of a utopia, but also looks into causes and consequences.

An aspect of this story that I found particularly interesting was the relationship between Martha and God. Without spoiling too much, the evolution of how she sees God hit close to home, especially as someone who is still working out her own relationship with religion in the wake of childhood religious trauma.

“Girls, at Play” by Celeste Ng

“Girls, at Play” is a very raw glimpse into the realities of adolescence. It's a coming of age tale that focuses on adolescent girls and their foray into a world of sexuality, class, and friendship. Reading this story as an older teenage girl, I found my heart aching for these girls. While my coming of age was nowhere near identical to what was described in the story, some aspects were all too familiar. “Girls, at Play” provides such a unique perspective on this inevitable maturation, in the most heart wrenching way.

I still can’t claim that I prefer short stories over longer ones, however, I do see a sense of beauty (and no doubt, genius) in them. The ability to create a world with complex characters and a plot worth following is incredibly difficult, even more so when you’re only given a few pages or less. These five stories do an excellent job of showcasing the broad range and creative genius that short stories provide.

If you’re interested in reading any of these stories, they are all accessible online for free.


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