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Small is beautiful
May 18, 2008 11:43 AM 21879 Views
(Updated May 20, 2008 10:25 PM)

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.

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

Now what can one say about Oscar Wilde? His witty writing, short stories, plays, poems are all delightful. His story, The Portrait of Dorian Grey is a masterpiece. His wordplay sparkles, makes you chuckle, and read on and on and on without tiring. But in this little morality tale, he adopts almost a biblical tone:


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.”


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


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.


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.


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”

A Municipal Report - O Henry

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.

Nashville is a dull place that the narrator is commissioned to visit. He has to sign a contract with a lady, Azalea Adair, binding her to write for a journal at 2 cents per word. He

also runs into a black cab driver called Caesar whose regal ways seem

out of sorts with his ramshackle cab(horse-driven) and tattered

clothes. He also runs into a despicable gentleman called Major Wentworth Caswell. There is also a dollar bill in this story, which is almost like a character itself.


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


Then there is button which is again a very important element in the story.

"The lone button was the size of a half-dollar, made of yellow horn and sewed on with coarse twine.

Our narrator is surprised when he finds a gem in Nashville in the shape of Ms. Azalea Adair.


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.”


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.Contd. in comments

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