Great Short Stories by American Women + Thoughts on A Few Other Great Stories

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Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

I adopted May as A Short Story a Day in May (which was also, apparently, made “official” by someone important I’d never heard of). I started off on a roll: I read a short story every day for almost three weeks. Then, by the last week of the month, I realized that I was honestly bored with reading a short story every day. I wasn’t finding the right ones, I guess. I am thinking that for me, short stories are best appreciated a few here and there, not a huge number in one month.

The first part of the month was taken up by reading a Dover Thrift anthology of stories by American Women. Edited by Candace Ward, the volume had thirteen stories, one of which I skipped because I couldn’t get into it. (That story was “Life in the Iron-Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis. The blurb about it compared it to Emile Zola, and that was enough to turn me against it. It also started quite slowly.) The anthology has (mostly) public domain works in it; I’ve found an online link where available.

The stories I did read, with my thoughts about them, were as follows. This is the order I read them in. A dark red font indicates it was one of my favorites.

  1. “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston. An unappreciated laundry lady deals with her adulterous husband. I thought this was an interesting story, but the writing was not as impressive as I thought Hurston’s other works are. As in her novels, Hurston writes dialog in dialect, and the characters and situations were realistic. This was her first major publication, and it appeared in one of the Harlem Renaissance journals, so I appreciated it for its historical value as well, even though it wasn’t a favorite story.
  2. “Sancturary” by Nella Larsen. Loyalty is put to the test when a young man shows up in Annie Poole’s house seeking a hiding place. I have Larsen’s novel Passing on my TBR, so I was really hoping I loved this story, which was one of her last published works. It was so short that I felt I couldn’t get into the characters. Yet, the theme is one that couldn’t have been extended. It was a plot and issue-based story, not a character one. Read it online >>>
  3. “A New England Nun” by Mary Wilkins Freeman. Louisa has been waiting fifteen years for her lover to return with his fortune and marry her; the time has come. I think it’s a great short story because the characters and setting are well introduced, and I also have an emotional connection. In the end, there is a catharsis, and someone is changed by the end of the story. I had read this before and once again I found it subtly satisfying. Read it online >>>
  4. “Trancendental Wild Oats” by Louisa May Alcott. A family settles in an utopian community. The note in my book indicates that this was semi-autobiographical, and I could sense Alcott’s bitterness toward the event. As a short story, though, I found there to be little point to this story. I didn’t connect with any characters, I didn’t think it was humorous, and I was plainly bored. (Apparently, this is a satire. I totally missed that!) Read it online >>>
  5. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A woman is put on house rest to calm her mental state, only to find the wallpaper tormenting her. I’ve read this many times before, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It was definitely time for a reread. Although it was not my favorite story from this collection, I think it’s a necessary story because it does such a great job of capturing a tormented woman’s mind.  Read it online >>>
  6. “Smoke” by Djuna Barnes. The weakly child of a strong couple struggles to meet their expectations for the family. This was the most unmemorable story that I read in the volume. I wasn’t impressed with the writing or the story line (such as it was). I didn’t feel drawn in to the characters in any way.
  7. “The Stones of the Village” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson. A mixed-race young man tries to escape the racism of his past by “passing” for white. While I knew a lot of Harlem Renaissance stories dealt with “passing,” I haven’t read any, other than Schuyler’s satire. I found this quite interesting for that historical reason. I didn’t feel drawn in to the characters or the story but there is plenty there in this story. Maybe it deserves a reread someday so I can give it another chance.
  8. “The Storm” by Kate Chopin. During a violent rainstorm, a happily married man stops in the house of a former lover, who is now a happily married woman. This was a great story. It was incredibly short but the two characters’ thoughts were foremost in the action, and the concept of the raging storm was an appropriate symbol for the passion of the young people. Chopin did a great job of capturing people and characters in little space. It made me want to read more Chopin (see below). Read it online >>>
  9. “The White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett. A young New England woman meets a traveling young hunter who wants her to reveal the home of the local white heron. I read this years ago and I had hoped I’d “get” it more now. Unfortunately, I still didn’t really enjoy it much. The introduction indicates that Sylvia’s decision (help the man or save her friend the heron) allows her to gain “an awareness both sexual and spiritual.” I didn’t see that at all. I just never connected to the characters and I felt bored as I read it.  Read it online >>>
  10. “The Angel at the Gate” by Edith Wharton. Paulina feels it is her duty to keep up the House of her famous ancestor, even though no one else remembers him.  Wharton always seems to write about “duty” and makes us think “what would you do?” From what I’ve read by Wharton, this was not her strongest work. I didn’t feel any sense of connection with Paulina. But I’m not one to hold on to strange traditions for no reason; maybe if I did, I’d have related to Paulina’s predicament more.
  11. “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather. A young man seeks for his place in the world, only to be constantly thwarted. This was a complicated story. At parts, I felt like I was getting to really know Paul, but other times he felt just out of reach. In some respects, I think that was the point. Paul was supposed to appear non-understandable. Since I’d hoped to love Cather’s contribution, I was disappointed, but this may be because I was getting bored with the short story overall by this point. Read it online >>>
  12. “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell. A quiet and unassuming local woman is accused of murder and her neighbors visit her house to try to figure out what happened. I loved this story! Although it was plot driven and not character driven, it was a refreshing look at how women were underestimated and discriminated against in a small community at the turn of the last century. I connected with the women in the story and loved the ending punch. Read it online >>>

After I finished this volume of stories, I decided to read my volume of Chopin’s stories. (I have her novella The Awakening, with about 10 short stories afterward). I wasn’t, overall, impressed with the Louisiana short stories. I struggled with the dialect, the French, and the unfamiliar themes. But I really enjoyed the stories about women in distinct situations. Two stood out to me.

My favorite story this month is one I think all should read. In “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin follows the thought process of one woman when she gets news of her husband’s death. It is so perfect, and I love the irony at the end. Because it is incredibly short, I don’t want to say anymore. Instead, go Read it online >>>

The other Chopin story I really liked was “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” In this, a busy and frugal woman spends her $15 on herself instead of on her children. Chopin doesn’t follow the woman’s thoughts, but rather her actions in this. I loved it because, I admit, I can relate to some extent! Mothers certainly need time to splurge on themselves. I felt sorry for this woman who hadn’t had the chance to do so for so long a time. Read it online >>>

I also have a volume of Mary Wilkins Freeman short stories, and since she’s contemporary to these other authors, I thought I’d give hers a try to. At this point in May, though, I was quite tired of short stories. I only read a few Freeman’s stories before I ended the project early.

The one Freeman story that I really did like was “The Revolt of Mother.” As with the last Chopin story, this is an action-driven story rather than one that follows the character’s thoughts. I cheered for the woman’s choices, for she was also a slighted woman who deserved something for herself. Read it online >>>

In the end, I have decided that a short story a day is far too many. I don’t like them that much, and reading that many shot stories gets tiring. I like a plot and characters that I can sink into, and short stories can’t do that. That said, I have rediscovered some old favorite stories, and I need to read more of them at some point. Just maybe not all at once.

What are your favorite classic short stories? How often do you read short stories? Do you get tired of them if you read them in bulk?

Reviewed on June 9, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve loved many of Wharton’s short stories — the collection of ghost stories is quite good, and I also loved Xingu and Roman Fever.

    I’m reading Chekhov for the Russian Classics Circuit, I really like his short stories. And I LOVE Saki — he has so many great ones. Great irony.
    .-= Karenlibrarian´s last post on blog ..Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout =-.

    • Karen, I LOVE Chekhov and I also really enjoyed Maupassant. I read Wharton’s Roman Fever too, and I liked it. I should look up more Wharton. And Saki. I keep hearing great things and still haven’t read him yet. Must remedy that.

    • Mel u, I read one story by Mansfield not mentioned above because I really disliked it. It was THE WOMAN AT THE STORE. Which are your favorites? I guess I should give her more of a chance, beyond just one story.

  • I’m not the hugest fan of short stories, but I generally like Kate Chopin (hooray for Louisiana!), and I LOVED “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I haven’t been good about reading short stories since graduating from college. I should really get a book of short stories and read at least one a week. I am short stories illiterate. :/
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Pyongyang, Guy Delisle =-.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this. A friend recently wrote asking for short stories by women — less traditional than the lottery — and I will absolutely let her know about this book.

    I’m not sure I have a favorite short story, although I remember liking some in the literature anthologies that I used to teach from. Sorry to be be vague.

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

    • Lynn, I don’t recall loving “The Lottery” but haven’t read it for a very long time. It’s always hard to remember which stories we like from anthologies — I found that they start to blend together!

  • I think I’ve only heard of two of these ladies and I’ve only read one of them.

    I love short stories but I don’t read very many older ones, usually just anthologies. I go through my moods where all I want to read are short stories and other times I’ll read one or two every couple of weeks.
    .-= Ladytink_534´s last post on blog ..This Flower Has Thorns =-.

  • Rebecca,
    Thank you for visiting my blog! I loved this post about your short stories adventure. I’m making a note of several I’m eager to read.

    The way I feel about short stories is that I “should” be reading them, especially contemporary short stories by modern masters of the craft. But I usually end up feeling I’ve wasted my time. What’s with that? Maybe I’m not a short story person? Even if that is true, I won’t stop forcing myself to read them. Sigh.

    .-= Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)´s last post on blog ..Yup! I’m Still in Vietnam =-.

    • Judith, that is exactly how I felt this month. Some of them really felt like a waste of time. I guess I like to sink in to characters in a longer novel-length story!

  • Gosh, I’m surprised to see so many people who are dismissive of (or bored by) the short story form actually setting out to share critiques of such on a literary blog! That’s sort of like a really picky eater saying she is qualified to be a food reviewer.

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