In literary realism, authors present people, places and events as they are, striving to make their stories realistic depictions of life rather than artificial ones. The stories often focus on common things and everyday experiences.
Realistic Short Stories
“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
A woman receives the news that her husband has been killed in a train accident. She processes the news over the next hour, experiencing a range of emotions.
“The Lesson” by Tony Cade Bambara
An inner-city class goes on a field trip to an expensive toy store. The children try to understand the differences in people’s wealth. (Summary & Analysis)
This story can be read in the preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story. (21% in)
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J. D. Salinger
Muriel speaks on the phone with her mother about her husband, Seymour, who has returned from the war. Her mother is worried about Seymour’s driving and his general mental condition. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach, where he meets a young girl and tells her about the bananafish.
This story can be read in the preview of Nine Stories. (22% in)
“Fat” by Raymond Carver
A waitress serves the fattest person she has ever seen. He orders a lot of food and points out that he doesn’t always eat like this. Her coworkers make fun of the man.
This is the first story in the preview of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
“Petrified Man” by 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.
This is the third story in the preview of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by 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.
This is the first story in the preview of Big Book of Best Short Stories: Western.
“A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett
Nine-year-old Sylvia lives in the country and has a strong connection to animals and nature. One day a young man, a hunter, comes through the area and stays with Sylvia and her grandmother. He is looking for a rare heron to add to his collection.
This story can be read in the preview of A White Heron and Other Stories.
“Alyosha the Pot” by Leo Tolstoy
Alyosha isn’t good at school and doesn’t say much. From childhood to the age of nineteen, he works hard on his family’s farm. His older brother works for a merchant, but is drafted into the army. Alyosha’s father sends him to take his brother’s place at the merchant’s. He’s a willing worker, completing all his brother’s tasks and more. The family continues to add more and more work to his schedule. He is burdened and mistreated, but he bears it well.
This is the third story in the preview of Classic Short Stories. (37% in)
“My Old Man” by Ernest Hemingway
The narrator tells the story of being with his father in Italy and France when he worked as a jockey. His father had an argument with some people after winning a race in Italy. In France he eventually buys his own horse to train and ride.
This is the third story in the preview of 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories.
“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)
“Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason
Leroy has been off work for four months since getting hurt. His wife, Norma Jean, supports them both by working at a drugstore. Leroy is glad to be home with his wife, but he’s worried that she’s drawing away from him—maybe his presence reminds her of their son who died as a baby.
This story can be read in the preview of Shiloh & Other Stories.
“All the Years of Her Life” by Morley Callaghan
Alfred, an adult, is caught stealing from his place of work, a drugstore. His boss calls his mother in to talk before calling the police, and she persuades him not to take the matter further. Alfred is fired.
“Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis
Hugh lives in poverty and works at a foundry. His cousin, Deborah, works long hours at a cotton mill. Despite doing physical, demanding, and uncreative work, Hugh has an artist’s sensibility, sculpting in his free time. One evening, an opportunity arises for Deborah to better their situation.
This longer story is one of the earliest examples of realism in American literature.
“In the Middle of the Fields” by Mary Lavin
An unnamed, recently widowed woman lives in Ireland on her farm. The grass on her farm needs trimming, so Ned, an old farm hand, suggests hiring a neighbor, Mr. Crossen, to do the job.
“Playing with Dynamite” by John Updike
Fanshawe is in his sixties and has slowed down a lot. His wife is a bit younger and spryer. The narrator gives us a look at Fanshawe’s childhood, middle years, his marriage, and how his attitude about life has developed.
“Black is My Favorite Color” by Bernard Malamud
Nat Lime, a Jewish bachelor, is drawn to African-American people. He thinks about his experiences with them, which never seemed to go the way he wanted.
“A Wagner Matinee” by Willa Cather
Clark gets a visit from his aunt, Georgiana, who’s in town on business. He thinks of how hard she has worked in her life. He takes her to a Wagner concert, and wonders if she’ll be able to appreciate it.
“Souvenir” by Jayne Anne Phillips
Every year, Kate sends her mother a Valentine’s Day card, timed to arrive exactly on February 14th. This year she has forgotten. She calls her mother that evening instead. The next day she finds out that her mother is in the hospital.
“Swimming Lessons” by Rohinton Mistry
Kersi lives in an apartment complex in Toronto and compares it to a housing complex he remembers from India. He writes letters to his parents back home. Kersi fantasizes about women but doesn’t have any real contact with them. He signs up for swimming lessons.
“Seventeen Syllables” by Hisaye Yamamoto
Rosie’s mother, Tome Hayashi, has been writing haikus and submitting them to a daily newspaper that publishes some once a week. Until the dinner dishes were done, Tome did the housework and helped with the tomato harvest, along with the hired Mexican family, the Carrascos. Afterward, she would write at the table, sometimes until midnight. When there’s company, Tome talks poetry with the interested party and her husband talks to the other. Rosie has become friends with the Carrasco boy, Jesus, who goes to the same school as her. Both mother and daughter have significant experiences.
“In the Zoo” by Jean Stafford
A visit to a zoo reminds two sisters of a childhood friend, an alcoholic with a lot of animals, who gave them a puppy. Their foster mother had a bad effect on the dog.
“I Want to Live!” by Thom Jones
Mrs. Wilson finds out she has uterine and breast cancer. It’s also an irregular kind of cancer that will complicate the treatment. Her doctor is good but lacks bedside manner. She thinks about her options and copes with her ordeal.
“George Thurston” by Ambrose Bierce
Thurston is a first Lieutenant in a Federal brigade. He’s not generally liked. The narrator, a topographical engineer, is busy with his work. Thurston joins him on a hazardous expedition. When they encounter an opposing regiment, Thurston reacts in an unusual way.
Read “George Thurston”
“A Piece of Steak” by Jack London
Tom King is an aging prize-fighter preparing for a bout. He doesn’t have a sparring partner or enough food to be at his best. Money is tight and the tradesmen won’t give him credit anymore. He needs the win bonus from his next fight for himself, his wife and his kids.
“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri
Shoba had a miscarriage six months ago, three weeks before she was due. She and her husband Shukumar get a notice from the electric company saying their power will be off for an hour for five consecutive evenings. While eating in candlelight, they decide to play a game where they will reveal something previously kept secret from each other.
“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
A narrator details the items that a regiment of soldiers carry with them, giving insight into their characters.
Read here (Pages 1 – 10)
“Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov
Nicolai wants his own farm with gooseberry bushes where he can live out his life. He makes it his entire focus; he becomes stingy and marries an old, wealthy widow whom he has no feelings for.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
A rebellious fifteen-year-old girl encounters an older man in a parking lot. He later shows up at her place when she’s home alone to ask her to go for a ride with him.
Read “Where Are You Going . . .”
“A New England Nun” by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Louisa Ellis has lived alone a long time and is used to doing things her own way. Fourteen years ago, she promised to marry Joe Dagget when he returned from seeking his fortune in Australia. Joe returns and it’s time to fulfill her promise.
“Janus” by Anne Beattie
Andrea, a successful real estate agent, has a favorite bowl that she displays in homes she is selling. She feels the bowl is responsible for her success.
Read “Janus” (scroll down slightly)
“Editha” by W. D. Howells
Editha has read about the Spanish-American war in the papers. She has a romantic view of the war, and feels that her fiancé, George, should join the effort. George is against war, but he gets swept up in the fervor at a meeting, and enlists.
“A Simple Heart” by Gustave Flaubert
After an early romantic disappointment, Felicite is hired as a housekeeper by Madame Aubain. Her work is exemplary and she loves the Aubain children very much. When the daughter takes catechism lessons and her first communion, Felicite becomes involved in religion.
“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck
Elisa is in the garden working on her chrysanthemums when a traveler pulls in looking for work. They develop a rapport and she pays him to do a little job. He expresses interest in her flowers.
“A Dead Woman’s Secret” by Guy de Maupassant
A dead woman’s adult children, a judge and a nun, sit vigil and read her old letters. She died peacefully. She instilled in them a strict moral code which has greatly influenced their lives. They read some of their mother’s old letters, uncovering a secret from her past.
I’ll keep adding realistic short fiction as I find more stories.