Discounting the short story as light reading or just something that you were forced to read in a class is to also discount the Epic Poems and every novel ever written. Beowulf, one of the oldest Epics, if written today would be no more than a short story. It is short. It has all the requirements for a story—a beginning, a middle, and an end. Coleridge’s masterpiece, “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” could have been a short story too, though I’m glad it isn’t. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” could readily be considered a collection of short stories. Which brings us to the question—how did the short story evolve? One could spend a ridiculous amount of time on this subject, but most literary historians could agree that the popularity of the short story is rooted in the 19th century, when magazines became popular and affordable.
Okay, sure the history is boring. Most of us do not care how the short story evolved and became a popular format; in fact, most of us don’t read short stories unless we have to. But I have come to admire the short story. A good short story that is. Take for example, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” published in 1894. It takes about fifteen minutes to read, and at least an hour to haphazardly analyze. She places us in the midst of a late 19th century woman’s hope for her new future when she learns that her husband has died. What does that say about the women of the era? With a flick of her pen, Chopin gives us a glimpse into the mind of a woman, and then suddenly and effortlessly shocks us. Hawthorne gives us stunning imagery and plenty of symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” that takes modern writers chapters of exploration to accomplish.
What the short story offers is a roller coast ride. They are short, fun, and even frightening. A good short story will give you hours of pleasure as you ponder its meaning, themes, and social agendas. I find myself often reminded of a short story that I had once read when events in my own life reflect the themes, questions, and societal politics. This is not as odd as one would think, for isn’t every “chapter” of our lives a short story too?
The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 4th Edition 1996