This page collects short stories with symbols. Of course, many short stories have symbols, but these are some of the more commonly recognized stories with symbols. See also:
Short Stories with Symbols
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
An unnamed narrator describes how he killed a man; he tries to convince his listener of his sanity and wisdom. He believed his boarder, an old man, watched him with an “Evil Eye.”
This is the second story in the preview of Great American Short Stories.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
On a summer morning, citizens of a small village are anticipating the annual “lottery”, a local tradition that is believed to bring a good harvest. The children gather first, making their usual preparations. The women and men arrive and make sure their whole family is present. Mr. Summers arrives with the black wooden box.
This story can be read in the preview of Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories. (10% in)
“The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence
A middle-class woman, successful but perpetually short of money, lives with her two children. She is unlucky, but her son isn’t: when he rides his rocking-horse, he’s able to work himself into a state where he can pick the winner of a horse race.
This is the first story in the preview of Big Book of Best Short Stories.
“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Goodman Brown has to go on a journey through the forest one night on an errand. The walk is unsettling, and he meets others from his town on the way.
This is the seventh story in the preview of 100 Great Short Stories.
“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner
Abner Snopes is being tried in a small-town court for allegedly burning down his landlord’s barn. He’s kicked out of town, and finds a new job working as a sharecropper.
This story can be read in the preview of Collected Stories.
Short Stories with Symbols, Cont’d
“The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Aylmer, an accomplished scientist, marries the beautiful Georgiana. She has a small birthmark on her left cheek. Most men have viewed it positively while women have been critical of it. Aylmer becomes fixated on removing the mark.
This story can be read in the preview of Mosses from an Old Manse. (5% in)
“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
Mama is an African-American woman living in the Deep South with her daughter, Maggie. Her other daughter, Dee, an educated woman who’s drawn to a traditional African identity, is coming for a visit. (Summary & Analysis)
“The Worker in Sandalwood” by Marjorie Pickthall
An overworked boy, an expert woodcarver, has to make a cabinet from sandalwood on Christmas Eve. A stranger seeks refuge from the cold in his work shed.
“The Other Side of the Hedge” by E. M. Forster
A man stops to rest on the side of the road. He is passed by some people, and also thinks of his brother whom he left behind. He notices a small opening in the hedge that lines the road. He pushes his way through it.
“The Found Boat” by Alice Munro
The Wawanash River overflows its banks every spring. Eva and Carol wade into the water with some boys from school. They find a damaged rowboat. The boys lug it to a backyard and fix it up.
“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.
“Araby” by James Joyce
Every morning, a boy looks through an opening in the blinds at the door where his friend Mangan lives. The boy can’t stop thinking about Mangan’s older sister. When she leaves her house, he follows her as long as he can. When she finally speaks to him, he can hardly answer. She asks if he’s going to the bazaar; she would like to go but can’t. He says he will bring something back for her.
Short Stories with Symbols, Cont’d
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway
An old man sits alone in a café and drinks, as is his custom. Two waiters talk about the man’s life and wish he would go home.
“The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad
A ship is anchored in the Gulf of Siam. The new captain sees another ship anchored nearby, the Sephora, which is transporting coal. The Captain decides to take the first watch himself. He notices the rope ladder over the side hasn’t been hauled in. As he deals with it, he sees the pale body of a man in the water. He doesn’t want to raise an alarm. The Captain learns the man was under arrest on the Sephora but escaped. He has to decide what to do with him.
Read “The Secret Sharer”
“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
A woman and a blind man have kept in contact for ten years, mailing tapes to each other. His wife has recently died, so he’s going to visit her family. On the way, the blind man’s going to spend a night at the woman’s place with her new husband. Her husband isn’t looking forward to the visit.
“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka
A hunger artist—a professional faster—puts on public fasting exhibitions. The public responds enthusiastically at first, but eventually loses interest.
“Janus” by Anne Beattie
Andrea, a successful real estate agent, has a favorite bowl that she displays in homes she’s selling. She feels the bowl is responsible for her success.
Read “Janus” (scroll down slightly)
“The Resplendent Quetzal” by Margaret Atwood
Sarah and Edward are on a guided tour in Mexico. She sits by a sacrificial well. The guide moves everyone along but Sarah stays. She’s not interested in seeing everything. They’re here because Edward’s latest obsession is pre-Columbian ruins. Edward is even farther behind the group. He’s bird-watching, which is one of his long-time interests. They’re not close anymore.
“Maud Martha and New York” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Maud daydreams about New York–all the expensive things to buy, the tasteful homes, the fancy food, and the arts and entertainment scene.
“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe
Prince Prospero and his nobles have retreated to an abbey. The doors are sealed. Outside, a plague is killing everyone. Death is painful and swift. The Prince decides to throw a party.
Short Stories with Symbols, Cont’d
“Penny in the Dust” by Ernest Buckler
A father gives his son a shiny new penny. The boy plays with it outside, burying it and digging it up again, but one time he can’t find it.
“The Japanese Quince” by John Galsworthy
Mr. Nilson perceives a peculiar sensation in his throat, leading him to take a morning walk in the nearby gardens to shake this uncomfortable feeling. During his trip, he sees Mr. Tandram which makes him feel awkward because they have never spoken even though they’re neighbors. They recognize the beauty of their surroundings.
“The New Dress” by Virginia Woolf
Mabel arrives at Clarissa’s place for a party. She feels her dress isn’t right. She couldn’t afford the latest style so she had one made from a cheaper pattern, old-fashioned, modeled after a picture from a Paris fashion book that looked charming on the page. Mabel has always had issues with inferiority, and now, in a room full of fashionably dressed people, she becomes consumed with how she looks and how she is viewed by the other attendees.
“The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst
The narrator, Brother, reminisces about the time a rare bird landed in his family’s garden, and about his brother, Doodle, who was physically disabled and mentally challenged.
“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowski
In Auschwitz, the narrator works “the ramp”, separating incoming prisoners into two groups: those who will work at Auschwitz and those who will be sent to the gas chamber.
“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.
I’ll keep adding short stories with symbols as I find more.