Short Stories About Appearances or Illusion & Reality

A character in these stories, or the reader, finds that appearances can be deceiving or they feature characters who struggle with the reality of their lives, possibly preferring an illusion instead.

See also Perception

See also Imagination

See also Identity

The Far and the Near | Thomas Wolfe

An express train passes by a cottage on the outskirts of a town for over twenty years. On each pass, the train’s engineer blows the whistle which brings a woman from the cottage, and later her daughter, to the window, and they all wave at each other. This means a lot to the engineer.

Read “The Far and the Near”

He | Katherine Anne Porter

The Whipples live in poverty and have three children, one of them mute and mentally challenged, the He of the title. Mrs. Whipple hates being pitied, and takes every opportunity to praise the boy. She is always worried about what everyone else will think of her.

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The Gilded Six-Bits | Zora Neale Hurston

Joe and Missie, happy newlyweds, live in a modest house in an all-black community. A new man in town, Otis, opens an ice cream parlor, and makes a show of his gold accessories. He talks about his money and his success with women. Joe and Missie’s marriage is put to the test.

Read “The Gilded Six-Bits”

The Landlady | Roald Dahl

A young salesman stays at an eerily quiet but seemingly perfect bed and breakfast.

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The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World | Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A drowned man washes up on the beach. While carrying him into the village, the men notice he is heavier and taller than any man they’ve seen. While the women clean him up to prepare him for burial, they see that he’s an amazing specimen, the most impressive man they’ve ever seen.

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A Late Encounter with the Enemy | Flannery O’Connor

General George Poker Sash is a 104-year-old American Civil War veteran. He gets invited to attend some events because of his age and veteran status. His granddaughter, 62-year-old Sally Poker Sash, prays that he will live to attend her college graduation so everyone will see she has a superior background.

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (PDF page 146)

Petrified Man | Eudora Welty

In a beauty parlor, Leota gossips with her client, Mrs. Fletcher. They cover a lot of subjects including Leota’s boarders, the Pikes; Mrs. Fletcher’s pregnancy; and the traveling freak show in town, featuring the petrified man.

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Hearts and Hands | O. Henry

A marshal boards a train handcuffed to a prisoner. They sit opposite a beautiful woman who recognizes the marshal.

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The Greatest Man in the World | James Thurber

A man successfully makes a continuous flight around the world, and becomes a national hero. However, he is coarse, with a criminal past, so government officials and newspaper men don’t know how to present him to the world.

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The Genius | Donald Barthelme

A genius is much lauded and appreciated, winning medals and awards, while living with his eccentricities.

Transients in Arcadia | O. Henry

A young woman and young man get acquainted at an expensive, but little-known, summer resort.

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Good Country People | Flannery O’Connor

A travelling Bible salesman visits a farm owned by a woman who has a daughter with a prosthetic leg. He is invited to stay for dinner.

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The Outcasts of Poker Flat | Bret Harte

In an effort to improve their town, the citizens of Poker Flat expel a group of undesirables from their midst. They set out for the next settlement, making a difficult mountain journey. On the way, they meet up with a couple headed for Poker Flat, who share some provisions and direct them to a cabin to rest.

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End of the Game | Julio Cortazar

Three adolescent girls play a game by the train tracks. The chosen girl wears ornaments and poses as either a “Statue” or an “Attitude” as the train goes by. One of the girls, Letitia, has a disability that makes the game a bit harder for her. One day a passenger on the train drops a note out the window for the girls.

The Pose | Anwer Khan

While out walking, a young woman abruptly breaks off her course and enters the Shandar Cloth Store. She quickly opens the show window, removes the mannequin, and assumes its pose.

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Life-Story | John Barth

A writer thinks about what to do with his current work, questioning the nature of the prose he writes. Perhaps he is a character in one of his stories and his life is fiction.

A Shower of Gold | Donald Barthelme

Peterson answers an ad to appear on a T.V. show to talk about his life. He is an artist and needs the money.

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A Country Love Story | Jean Stafford

Daniel, a professor who has just spent time recuperating in a sanitarium, moves with his younger wife, May, to a place in the country. A distance develops between them with Daniel working on some research and May turning to fantasy to get her through the days.

Mr. Arcularis | Conrad Aiken

Mr. Arcularis goes on a sea voyage to England to help himself recover from an operation.  He meets Miss Dean, a beautiful young woman, and they talk. He feels he is falling in love with her.

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Locomotive 38, the Ojibway | William Saroyan

When a tall Indian man comes into town on a donkey and hangs out at the library, people assume he is insane and poor. It turns out he’s rich. He says he’ll buy a car if the narrator will drive him around.

The Schartz-Metterklume Method | Saki

At a train station, a mischievous woman poses as the governess that Mrs. Quabarl has been expecting.

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Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality | Vasily Aksenov

When Tolya comes home with a new leather cap, his young son, Ivan, asks if he can fly with it. Tolya is willing to play along with his son’s imagination. His wife snaps him back to reality by asking about an important phone call he was supposed to make.

The Caliph, Cupid and the Clock | O. Henry

A very wealthy man poses as homeless and looks for opportunities to help people.

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A Dangerous Guy Indeed | Damon Runyon

Morgan Johnson moves into town. He doesn’t talk about himself, so people make assumptions about his background based on his appearance. He gains a reputation as a dangerous man.

Mandela Was Late | Peter Mehlman

A parole officer waits for an ex-con, Mandela, to show up for their meeting. He has a pessimistic view of the former criminals he deals with.

Read “Mandela Was Late”

Winter Dreams | F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dexter Green is a fourteen-year-old caddy, working for pocket money. He quits one day when Judy Jones, a beautiful eleven-year-old, treats him as an inferior. Years later he goes into business and becomes a success. He has another meeting with Judy Jones.

Read “Winter Dreams”

Afternoon of an Author | F. Scott Fitzgerald

A man wakes up feeling better than usual lately—he’s not ill—and thinks about going out even though he has a story to finish. He looks over his current draft and throws it out. He tries to come up with a destination for his little trip.

Read “Afternoon of an Author”

Darkening Shadows | Louis Biro

A director introduces Eugene, a young composer, to the star of their show, Elizabeth Geltz, a celebrated singer. Eugene is warned that Elizabeth likes younger men and will try to trap him.

Old Country Advice to the American Traveler | William Saroyan

Melik is about to take a train trip from Fresno to New York. His uncle Garro visits him to warn him of all the dangers and traps he will encounter on his journey; he claims everyone who approaches him will have ulterior motives.

Read “Old Country Advice to the American Traveler”

Mimic | Donald A. Wollheim

The narrator tells the story of a man he knew from childhood. He always wore a black cloak and a wide brimmed hat pulled down over his face. He kept to himself and never caused any trouble. One day there was an incident.

Read “Mimic”

Numbers in the Dark | Italo Calvino

A young boy, Paolino, accompanies his mother to work in the evening. They clean a large office building. Paolino likes seeing the equipment and supplies and is impressed by the machines.

Read “Numbers in the Dark”


I will continue to add short stories about appearances and illusion vs reality that might be suitable for middle or high school students. I hope these pages will become a teaching resource.