Five Great American Short Stories

Short stories are often unfairly relegated to a rank below that of their novelistic cousins. However, with the rise of technology which favors speed and brevity, the form is presently undergoing something of a renaissance. In light of this, Christian Kriticos selects his five favorite American short stories for your consideration… 

5. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Guin (1973)

Ursula Le Guin’s most famous short story is not a story at all, but rather a plotless description of a fictional world. Like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, the story introduces us to a seemingly benign community celebrating a summer festival, only to slowly suggest that there is something more sinister lurking beneath this façade. In this unsettling, Hugo Award-winning narrative, Le Guin forces the reader to question the morality of her fictional world, as well as our everyday existence.

4. “Wakefield,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

The entire plot of this short story is relayed in its first paragraph: a man tells his wife he is leaving on a short business trip and instead moves into the house across the street, silently observing her for the next twenty years before, just as suddenly, returning home.  Hawthorne spends the rest of his narrative trying to unpack the man’s possible motives, making this a troubling study on family life and the bizarre mysteries of human psychology.

 3. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)

Fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories know that he was not adverse to writing fantasy, with one of the most famous examples being ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.’ This story also falls into the fantasy category, with the plot revolving around a mountain composed of a single gigantic diamond, and the lengths one family will go to protect the secret of its existence, culminating in a bargain with God. Fitzgerald’s story examines the destructive nature of greed, as the family choses to destroy themselves and their friends to protect their wealth, highlighting the corrupted innocence of the American dream in the 1920’s era of excess.

 2. Recitatif by Toni Morrison (1983)

Despite nearly half a century as one of America’s most celebrated writers of fiction, Toni Morrison has only published one short story. And yet, it gets to the heart of what almost of all of her work is trying to say. The story concerns two childhood friends who slowly drift apart, only meeting later in life through chance encounters. At the beginning Morrison tells us that one of them is white and the other black, but refuses to tell the reader which is which. However, in creating this ‘raceless’ text, Morrison in fact points to inherent prejudices in American society, as the reader tries to interpret clues and red herrings which might identify each character’s racial identity.

 1. The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov (1976)

Published in the year of America’s bicentennial, Isaac Asimov’s story took a very different approach to the rest of the nation’s celebrations: instead of glorifying a mythologized, rose-tinted past, Asimov set his eye to the distant future, while simultaneously painting an allegory of America’s troubled history with social equality. The plot concerns Andrew, a house robot owned by a wealthy family, who decides that he wishes to be free and attain the same rights as humans. By invoking the shadow of slavery on America’s two hundredth birthday, Asimov suggests that it is still capable of repeating its past mistakes, and that the definition of the famous phrase “all men are created equal” must be expanded. This beautiful story will truly make you shed a tear for a machine, and question your very understanding of what it means to be human.

Christian Kriticos

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