In the United States, books or stories published in 1926 or earlier are now in the public domain (as of 2022). These works are free to use and reproduce as you like.
Be aware that translations of public domain stories are not necessarily in the public domain as well. Make sure the translation is also old enough to qualify as public domain.
Here are some great short stories that have entered the public domain. Only one story per author is listed, but they have many others as well. Keep in mind that everything these authors wrote might not be in the public domain yet.
Public Domain Stories
“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
Desiree had been adopted as a toddler. She is now an adult with a baby of her own. She and her husband, Armand, are very happy. After a while, there are some whispers about the baby.
“The Wedding-Knell” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The narrator recounts the story of an unusual wedding between a man and woman in their sixties. Rather than being introduced by uplifting music, the wedding was introduced with a funeral knell instead.
This story can be read in the preview of Twice-Told Tales. (44% in)
“Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield
A middle-aged woman takes a weekly Sunday walk. This time she takes out her fur to wear. She likes to observe and listen to people, but she overhears something that upsets her.
Read “Miss Brill” (Includes Summary & Analysis)
“Cat in the Rain” by Ernest Hemingway
An American couple is on vacation in Italy. The wife looks out the window at the rain and sees a cat huddled under a table. She wants to go down and take it in out of the rain.
This story can be read in the preview of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. First select Kindle, then go into the preview. (76% in)
“Paper Pills” by Sherwood Anderson
Reefy is an old man with a huge nose and hands. He used to be a doctor. He married a wealthy woman who inherited a large farm. She died within a year of their union. We hear the story of Reefy and how he came to meet the woman.
This story can be read in the preview of Collected Stories. (17% in)
“A Horseman in the Sky” by Ambrose Bierce
During the American Civil War, Carter Druse, fighting for the North, falls asleep at his sentry post. We learn how he joined the Union forces.
This story can be read in the preview of The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. (5% in)
“The Last Leaf” by O. Henry
A few tenants in an apartment building are painters/artists. One of the tenants gets pneumonia, and she can see a vine from her deathbed window. She says she’s going to die when the vine loses its last leaf.
This is the fourth story in the preview of 50 Greatest Short Stories. (46% in)
“The Sisters” by James Joyce
Father Flynn has had his third stroke and is paralyzed. A boy walks by his home each night looking at the light in the window. It’s even and faint—not the reflection of candles that would indicate he had died. When he goes down for supper, his uncle and aunt are talking to a visitor, Mr. Cotter. He thinks there was something unusual about Father Flynn, but doesn’t get specific about it. The boy’s uncle breaks the news that the priest has died.
This story can also be read in the preview of Dubliners. (10% in)
“Moon-Face” by Jack London
The narrator hates John Claverhouse especially his optimistic view of life, his laugh, and his name. He knows that it’s an irrational hatred, but instead of ignoring the man, he obsesses over him, making it his aim to destroy Claverhouse’s life.
This is the first story in the preview of Moon-Face & Other Stories.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville
An elderly, Manhattan lawyer tells the story of Bartleby, the strangest law-copyist he has ever heard of. When business picked up, he hired Bartleby, whose sedate disposition seemed like a perfect balance to his other employees. He did an exceptional quantity of work for a short time. On Bartleby’s third day on the job, though, he made a surprising reply when asked to look over a document.
This story can be read in the preview of Classic Short Stories: The Complete Collection. (50% in)
“The Hounds of Fate” by Saki
Martin Stoner is a weary, hungry man wandering aimlessly. He happens upon a farm-house. Thinking he might buy a drink with his last coin, he approaches the door. Before he can knock, he’s greeted by an old man who addresses him in a surprising way.
This story can be read in the preview of The Hounds of Fate: 13 Tales of Terror. (Pg 1)
“A Spark Neglected Burns the House” (“Quench the Spark”) by Leo Tolstoy
Ivan’s family is healthy, hard-working and prosperous and they live happily. The balance is upset by a feud with their neighbor, Gabriel. A hen belonging to Ivan’s daughter-in-law flew into Gabriel’s yard and laid an egg. When she inquires about it, Gabriel’s mother respond rudely. It quickly escalates into name calling and a shouting match. Legal proceeding follow. Ivan’s father, who used to run the farm, advises his family to reconcile, and not let this disagreement over a trifle get out of hand. His words go unheeded, and quarreling becomes a daily occurrence.
This story can be read in the preview of Collected Shorter Fiction of Leo Tolstoy: Vol 2. (5% in)
“The Mark On the Wall” by Virginia Woolf
The narrator thinks back to when she first noticed the small round, black mark on the wall, above the mantlepiece. It sent her reflecting on the mystery and speed of life, the inaccuracy of thought and a variety of people and things. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was—a mark, a hole or a projection— and she resisted getting up and taking a really close look at it.
This story can be read in the preview of The Complete Works. (31% in)
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator visits his friend Roderick who, along with his sister, is suffering from an unusual illness. They were close friends as boys but he knows little of Roderick. He recently received a letter from his old friend, referencing his illness and asking him to visit right away. On approaching the house, he finds it dilapidated. His friend has also deteriorated.
“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather
After a week’s suspension from his Pittsburgh High School, Paul appears before the faculty to account for himself. He’s disorderly and shows contempt for his teachers. He smiles through the litany of complaints made against him. The teachers feel there’s something not right about Paul. He works as an usher at Carnegie Hall. He has a strained relationship with his father, who wants him to be a responsible wage-earning family man when he grows up, but Paul is drawn to a life of wealth and glamour.
“The Bet” by Anton Chekhov
At a dinner party a banker argues that capital punishment is preferable to life imprisonment. A young lawyer disagrees, saying that he would rather life in prison over death. They bet two million rubles that the lawyer can’t stay isolated for fifteen years.
“Il Conde” by Joseph Conrad
At the National Museum in Naples, the narrator meets an older man—intelligent, unaffected and with some money. The climate of Naples is good for his health. He’s correct and moderate in his habits. They spend a few evenings together before the narrator gets called away to care for an ill friend. While he’s away, the older man has a consequential experience.
Read “Il Conde”
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Bernice, a young woman, is visiting her cousin Marjorie. Marjorie is a big hit with all the young men while Bernice is struggling. After a disappointing evening dance, Bernice overhears Marjorie talking about how socially inept she is.
“The Jumping-Off Place” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Miss Shortridge runs the Jumping-Off Place, a boarding house that is too full at the moment. Still, she’s allowing two more visitors due to a previous relationship. The Revered Joseph Whitcomb was her minister for about thirty years and she wanted to marry him. Mrs. Weatherby knew Miss Shortridge since girlhood, and Miss Shortridge saw her get married twice—occasions she will never forget. She’s interested in seeing these two significant people again.
“A Dog’s Tale” by Mark Twain
A dog recounts her history. Her mother was a collie that liked making a show of her education, which was superficial. She liked using words and phrases she had heard without regard for the meaning. She was also kind, gentle and brave. When the narrator grows up, she’s sold, which is very sad for them both. She ends up in a fine home. One day, a situation arises that tests her character.
Read “A Dog’s Tale”
“The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson
A schooner is approached by a small rowboat. The passenger doesn’t want any lanterns out or any direct contact with the crew. He only asks for some food to be floated out to him. He leaves after getting it, but returns soon after.
“The Verdict” by Edith Wharton
At the height of his career as a painter, Jack Gisburn married a rich widow, moved to the Riviera and quit painting. The women whom he painted mourned his sudden departure—men and his fellow artists less so. On a trip to the Riviera three years later, it occurs to the narrator that he could check in on Gisburn and perhaps find out what happened.
Read “The Verdict”
“A Piece of String” by Guy de Maupassant
A man is walking to the market one day when he stops to pick up a piece of string. Soon after, it is reported that a wallet with 500 francs was lost. His act of picking up something makes him a suspect. He vehemently denies any guilt.