Short stories are like little gems, Cadbury Gems that look pretty, taste good and vanish without cloying. You can eat many at a time and again and again with renewed pleasure each time. Choosing 5 best short stories is an impossible task, and quite self defeating. How can you choose 5 best pearls out of an ocean-full of treasure? It is like picking 5 best stars out of a glittering sky. Leave alone 5 best short stories, it is not even possible to choose 5 best short story writers! Anyhow, I am picking these stories strictly on basis of the ones which have lingered in my mind the most. This is, again, not a very good benchmark. For instance, after I compiled my list, I was reminded of War of the Worlds by HG Wells. What a magnificent story that was! So awfully massacred by Steven Spielberg. Why can’t any filmmaker have the courage to make it exactly like it is? Idgah, by Munshi Premchand, that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Most stories I have picked, barring two, were originally written in some other language, and translated into English. But I read them in English, whereas I have always read Idgah in Hindi.
The only thing to do is to excuse me for the ones I have ignored and just savor the ones I list here. Here goes my list, which is not in any order, I wouldn’t dare!
The Selfish Giant – Oscar Wilde
“And the Giant stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree. And the tree broke at once into blossom, and the birds came and sang on it, and the little boy stretched out his two arms and flung them round the Giant's neck, and kissed him.”
The repeated use of the word “and” is in the style of the Bible. The sentences are short and descriptive “He was a very selfish Giant”. The simple little tale of a selfish person who realizes the importance of sharing and loving his fellow creatures is timeless, a classic.
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
If I were to choose the best short story ever, this would be it. The pathetic tale of Gregor Samsa tears your heart out. It makes you wonder at the fragility of our closest relationships, with our parents, our siblings, which seem so strong, but are often based on a mutual need. Good as long as they are fulfilling, cast out the minute they are not. The story has a chilling start
“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
From being a good son and brother, who works hard to support his family, he turns into a hated creature that needs constant attention. At first, his sister pitches in lovingly to care for him. But as time passes, he becomes a useless burden and is shunned by his own loved ones. Kafka paints an inexorable picture of Gregor’s travails that take us through emotions of pity and disgust, but also make us realize that we are human and possess all the frailties associated with our kind.
The Necklace – Guy De Maupassant
One of those tales with a twist in the end, like the Gift of Magi, which was bittersweet, borne of love, ending with a little laughter and love. But The Necklace is almost like a morality tale, chiding and punishing the heroine mercilessly for her vanity. Mathilde Loisel is a young pretty girl who yearns for good life. She is married to a poor man and is discontented with her life. Her husband brings home an invitation to a party, and Mathilde is besieged by the question familiar to all womenfolk, “What will I wear!” With great difficulty she puts together a desired ensemble that is worthy of her beauty. And for that night, she gets all that she wished for.
“She danced madly, ecstatically, drunk with pleasure, with no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the pride of her success, in a cloud of happiness made up of this universal homage and admiration, of the desires she had aroused, of the completeness of a victory so dear to her feminine heart.”
Alas, this is the last happy night of her life. But then, didn’t DH Lawrence say “Let man go on his way to perdition”?
Old Fashioned Farmers – Nikolai Gogol
Gogol has written umpteen, magnificent short stories. What is so special about this one? In my mind this story is almost like a stately painting, with lovely detailing, that brings an old couple alive. Yes, there is a lot of romance in painting young and beautiful figures, but the painting of the old couple is like looking at LIFE.
Afansii Ivanovich and Pulcheria Ivanova are old-fashioned farmers. Their life has settled into a series of routines and habits. In their own way, they are a very devoted to each other. They spend their day tending to their farming affairs and household matters. They love welcoming guests into their house and are full of the old world charm. What happens when one of the couple dies? Gogol compares a mad passionate love of youngsters with the staid habits of an old couple who have been together forever.
“Which wields the most powerful sway over us, passion or habit? Or are all our strong impulses, all the whirlwinds of our desire and boiling passions, but the consequence of our fierce young growth, and only for that reason seem deep and annihilating?" However that may be, all our passion, on that occasion, seemed to me child's play beside this long, slow, almost insensible habit”
This is one story I am very very fond of. I read it through again yesterday while looking for quotes to pull out. Oscar Wilde and O Henry are the only ones on this list to have written in English. In their stories, nothing is lost in translation and we get the full impact of whatever they intend to convey. I could wax eloquent forever about his writing style, if only I could find words to describe it. Is it hard to sketch a character so well in a few lines that it jumps out of the pages of the book to come alive? Yes, but, O Henry can.
“I gave him two one-dollar bills. As I handed them over I noticed that one of them had seen parlous times. Its upper right-hand corner was missing, and it had been torn through the middle, but joined again. A strip of blue tissue paper, pasted over the split, preserved its negotiability.”
Then there is button which is again a very important element in the story.
Our narrator is surprised when he finds a gem in
“While she talked to me I kept brushing my fingers, trying, unconsciously, to rid them guiltily of the absent dust from the half-calf backs of Lamb, Chaucer, Hazlitt, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Hood. She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much - oh, so much too much - of real life.”
Expecting to be bored to death during the visit, the narrator finds excitement aplenty. A murder is done, and the narrator helps in shielding a murderer. To find out the rest, go read the story.
There are so many other excellent short story writers that I have missed here. Saki, DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Chekov, Dosteoveksy, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry to name just a few. I do hope the ones I have listed above whet your appetite for good writing.