Although the short story has been around for hundreds of years, the form did not gain universal popularity until the 19th century, when writers like Chekhov, Poe, and Maupassant elevated the short story to its proper place in literature. Many consider the 19th and 20th centuries to be the “Golden Age” of the short story, and this article attempts to rate (in descending order) the best short stories of this era.
10. “Youth” by Joseph Conrad (1902). This story about a youth on a merchant ship is regarded by many as one of the best seafaring stories ever told. Based on Conrad’s own early life as a sailor, this story uniquely captures the romantic and naive quality of youth in a way that escapes many authors.
9. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948). One of the most well-known short stories of all time, Jackson’s masterpiece envisions a typical small town with one bizarre ritual; an annual lottery to decide who gets stoned to death as a sacrifice. Although “The Lottery” is not particularly well-written, the story works because of Jackson’s juxtaposition of an ancient ritual taking place in a contemporary society.
8. “The Metamorphosis: Part 1” by Franz Kafka (1915). In this story, Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find that he has transformed from a human into a giant insect. Despite his metamorphosis, young Gregor’s main concern is keeping his job as a traveling salesman (a premise as ludicrous as Gregor’s transformation). Eventually the bug-human is squooshed by his father. Lots of symbolism in this story.
7. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet (1937). Inspired by Faust, Benet’s version of the classic tale features a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the devil. The farmer is defended by the smooth-talking Daniel Webster, who of course uses his skill as a lawyer to defeat the devil.
6. “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall (1959). One of the most underrated stories in the history of literature, “The Ledge” is perhaps the finest example of a heroic tragedy. On Christmas morning, a fisherman from Maine takes his son and nephew out to a small rocky island for some duck hunting. Their rowboat drifts away, and as the tide rises the fisherman hoists his young son on top of his shoulders, sacrificing himself to the freezing waters so that his son may live.
5. “The Wall” by Jean-Paul Sartre (1939). Set during the Spanish Civil War, “The Wall” refers to the wall used by firing squads. Pablo Ibbieta shares a cell with two other men, all of whom are sentenced to death. Pablo is offered his life if he reveals the location of his comrade, Ramón Gris. Although Pablo refuses to co-operate, his life is spared while his comrade is killed in an ironic twist of fate.
4. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (1906). Considered by many to be the most perfect short story ever written, “The Gift of the Magi” is the tale of a man who sells his pocket watch so he can buy his wife a set of tortoiseshell combs for Christmas. Meanwhile, the wife sells her hair to a wigmaker in order to buy a watch chain for her husband.
3. “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence (1926). A young boy is able to predict the winners of horse races by riding on his rocking horse. His gift is taken advantage of by greedy relatives, and in the end, the young boy dies (although I won’t say how).
2. “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner (1930). A macabre and chilling tale, the surprise ending is made even more visceral by the juxtaposition of homey Mississippi locals who are characters in this story. The ending is just too good to give away.
1. “Little Herr Friedemann” by Thomas Mann (1896). Dropped on his head at birth, Little Herr Friedemann grows up to be a deformed cripple who falls in love with the wife of a military commander. A friendship ensues and one day Little Herr Friedemann professes his love for the woman at a party, and she laughs at him and walks away. Heartbroken, Little Herr Friedemann drowns himself in a river.
These ten stories may be considered the best short stories of the modern age because each story leaves a lasting impression upon the reader which is sometimes haunting, but always profound.