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 living in denial and preferring an illusion instead. There will often be an ironic contrast between how things appear and how they actually are. Other stories have characters who are very concerned about appearances.
If you want short stories that try to accurately portray the reality of life, see Realism. See also:
Short Stories About Appearances & Illusion vs Reality
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.
This is the third story in the preview of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.
“I CAN SPEAK!™” by George Saunders
Mrs. Faniglia receives a letter from KidLuv, makers of the I CAN SPEAK™ device for babies. She returned the one she purchased, so an associate addresses her concerns. The device doesn’t read the babies mind. It recognizes aural patterns and then makes it seem like the baby is speaking. The mask doesn’t look like your baby, but the upgraded version does, which they are pleased to offer her at no extra charge.
This story can be read in the preview of In Persuasion Nation. (30% in)
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.
This is the sixth story in the preview of Collected Stories and Other Writings.
The Zebra Storyteller | Spencer Holst
A Siamese cat learns to speak to Zebras, taking advantage of the shock of it to tie them up and kill them. (Summary)
This fable illustrates the function of the storyteller. It can be read in the preview of The Language of Cats and Other Stories.
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.
This is the first story in the preview of Big Book of Best Short Stories: Western.
The Possibility of Evil | Shirley Jackson
Miss Strangeworth, an elderly woman, lives on Pleasant Street in a house her grandfather built. She is known for the beautiful roses she grows. She’s on friendly terms with many people in town, and she observes what is happening.
This is the first story in the preview of Dark Tales.
“The Defense of Free Mind” by Desirina Boskovich
is working a shift in the greenhouse when the sirens go off. She grabs a rifle from the locker and sets up at the wall, along with the other Defenders. Five people are approaching on a boat marked with the City insignia. The city people all look the same, and they want to conquer Free Mind and control them. The Defenders fire on the boat.
This story can be read in the preview of Resist: Tales From a Future Worth Fighting Against. (32% in)
“The Model Millionaire” by Oscar Wilde
Hughie Erskine is a good-looking, popular fellow who has everything going for him but one thing—he can’t make money. This prevents him from marrying Laura Merton, whose father insists Hughie have £10,000 in the bank. One day Hughie drops in on his painter friend, Alan, and his model, a beggar.
This is the first story in the preview of 50 Greatest Short Stories.
“Sleeping” by Katharine Weber
Harriet, a young girl, is babysitting Charles. His parents tell her that he won’t be any trouble, he will sleep the whole time, and she needn’t even open his bedroom door to look at him. (Analysis)
This story can be read in the preview of Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories. (88% in)
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.
This story can be read in the preview of The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken.
The Eyes Have It (or The Eyes Are Not Here) | Ruskin Bond
A blind man is riding the train. A young woman joins him in his carriage. He tries to navigate the social interaction without revealing his blindness.
This story can be read in the preview of Collected Short Stories. (32% into preview)
“Maud Island” by Erskine Caldwell
Uncle Marvin has his nephews with him for a while. A houseboat drifts downstream toward them. Uncle Marvin, a preacher, is worried. He’s seen this type of boat before and knows they’re up to no good. They’re very friendly, but he discourages them from docking.
This story can be read in the preview of The Stories of Erskine Caldwell. (57% in)
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard
Dantzler and his Special Forces platoon are in El Salvador. When hostilities break out, Dantzler takes two ampules which enhance him physically and mentally. A fellow soldier, DT, is a big proponent of the ampules, although they may be permanently affecting his brain. Their mission is to secure Morazan before the invasion of Nicaragua. Datzler starts using the ampules even more.
This story can be read in the preview of The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Second Annual Collection. (35% in)
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.
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.
Summer Frost | Blake Crouch
Riley watches a woman steal a Maserati from in front of a hotel. He follows her through traffic, while in audio contact with his associate, Brian. She heads north to an estate, as they anticipated. Riley believes his target has gone into the house. He’s going to follow. Brian warns him to be careful.
Some of “Summer Frost” can be read in the Amazon preview.
The Landlady | Roald Dahl
A young salesman stays at an eerily quiet but seemingly perfect bed and breakfast. (Summary & Analysis)
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. (Summary)
Good Country People | Flannery O’Connor
Mrs. Hopewell is a widow and Christian who runs her farm. Her daughter, Joy, has an artificial leg from a hunting accident as a child. She’s an atheist with a Ph.D. Mrs. Hopewell likes “good country people”, like her hired tenants, the Freemans. She and Mrs. Freeman like exchanging platitudes. Joy is introverted and believes she has life figured out. One day, a traveling Bible salesman calls on Mrs. Hopewell. (Summary & Analysis)
“Miss Temptation” by Kurt Vonnegut
Susanna rents a room over the firehouse during the summer. She’s an actress in the theatre near the village. The residents have never gotten used to her; she’s beautiful and her clothing draws attention. Everyday, she walks to the drugstore to get the New York papers. The men admire her along the way, but the only one who speaks to her is the seventy-two year old pharmacist. One day, Norman Fuller returns home after eighteen months on duty in Korea. He’s never seen Susanna before and there’s an incident.
“Blow-Up” by Julio Cortazar
Roberto Michel ruminates over how and why he should tell his story. When he takes a walk along the river he sees a woman interacting with a teenage boy. As a photographer, he takes a picture of the scene, knowing what is going on. Later, he’s able to examine it more closely.
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.
Hearts and Hands | O. Henry
A marshal boards a train handcuffed to a prisoner. They sit opposite a beautiful woman who recognizes the marshal.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Read “The Caliph, Cupid and the Clock”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shoeshine Boy | Jeffrey Archer
Ted Barker’s political career progresses until he is appointed Governor of St George’s, a group of islands and British colony. His duties aren’t difficult but the Governor’s mansion is understaffed and under-maintained. He and his wife get by just fine until they are informed they will be visited by Admiral Mountbatten, who will see how things are going and then brief the Queen.
Roses, Rhododendron | Alice Adams
Jane looks back on the summer she was ten, when she and her mother moved to a small town to open an antique shop. While her mother, Margot, gathers stock for the store, Jane checks out the town. She meets a young girl, Harriet, and they become good friends. She spends time at her house, which is relaxing and calm.
The Strength of God | Sherwood Anderson
Reverend Curtis Hartman is the pastor of a Presbyterian Church. Not being a natural speaker, he puts much work into his two Sunday sermons which includes earnestly praying for God’s help. One Sunday morning while in the bell tower he looks out the window. He can see a woman in the upper room of the house next door.
Queen of Diamonds | Michael Anthony Dorris
Ray, a fifteen-year-old girl, is visiting her mother, Christine, in the hospital. Christine is Native American; Ray’s father, Elgin, is African American. Elgin stops by to drop off Christine’s car, but he hasn’t been around lately.
The Marijuana Party | Mary Helen Ponce
It’s Petra’s fortieth birthday. She’s a Mexican American housewife. She wants to do something different and exciting. She has a joint she found after her nephew visited; she plans on sharing it with her friends, Tottie and Emily.
Disappearances | K. J. Orr
A retired man feels impelled to get up early and go to the museum. It’s not open yet. He goes to a café, busy during the day, but empty now. He notices the waitress. He starts going there every morning, glad that his former career as a plastic surgeon is unknown to her.
Puttermesser Paired | Cynthia Ozick
Ruth, an attorney in her fifties, is alone. She’s a big fan of novelist George Eliot, who found a seemingly perfect intellectual match and lover in George Lewes. Ruth wants to duplicate this in her own life. One day, she notices a younger man who manifests what she’s looking for.
Order of Insects | William H. Gass
A housewife and mother finds dead bugs everyday on her carpet. Eventually, she decides to examine the insects. At first, she’s disgusted by them, and only looks because they bring some disorder into her life. Later, she becomes genuinely curious about them.