short story

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short story,

brief prose fiction. The term covers a wide variety of narratives—from stories in which the main focus is on the course of events to studies of character, from the "short short" story to extended and complex narratives such as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Most often the short story is restricted in character and situation and is concerned with creating a single, dynamic effect. Its length usually falls between 2,000 and 10,000 words. Short stories date back to earliest times; they can be found in the Bible, Gesta RomanorumGesta Romanorum
, medieval collection of Latin stories. Although the title means "Deeds of the Romans," the tales have very little to do with actual Roman history. Each tale is characterized by a moral. The earliest manuscript dates from the 14th cent.
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 of the Middle Ages, Boccaccio's Decameron, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The modern short story is said to have begun in the 19th cent. with the works of Edgar Allan PoePoe, Edgar Allan,
1809–49, American poet, short-story writer, and critic, b. Boston. He is acknowledged today as one of the most brilliant and original writers in American literature.
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 and Guy de MaupassantMaupassant, Guy de
, 1850–93, French novelist and short-story writer, of an ancient Norman family. He worked in a government office at Paris and became known c.1880 as the most brilliant of the circle of Zola.
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. Notable among the exponents of the form are Henry JamesJames, Henry,
1843–1916, American novelist and critic, b. New York City. A master of the psychological novel, James was an innovator in technique and one of the most distinctive prose stylists in English.

He was the son of Henry James, Sr.
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, O. HenryO. Henry,
pseud. of William Sydney Porter,
1862–1910, American short-story writer, b. Greensboro, N.C. He went to Texas in 1882 and worked at various jobs—as teller in an Austin bank (1891–94) and as a newspaperman for the Houston Post.
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, E. T. A. HoffmannHoffmann, Ernst Theodor Amadeus
, 1776–1822, German romantic novelist and composer, a lawyer. At one time an opera composer and musical director at Bamberg and a gifted music critic, he is most famous as a master of the gothic tale.
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, ChekhovChekhov, Anton Pavlovich
, 1860–1904, Russian short-story writer, dramatist, and physician, b. Taganrog. The son of a grocer and grandson of a serf, Chekhov earned enduring international acclaim for his stories and plays.
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, KafkaKafka, Franz
, 1883–1924, German-language novelist, b. Prague. Along with Joyce, Kafka is perhaps the most influential of 20th-century writers. From a middle-class Jewish family from Bohemia, he spent most of his life in Prague.
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, D. H. LawrenceLawrence, D. H.
(David Herbert Lawrence), 1885–1930, English author, one of the primary shapers of 20th-century fiction. Life

The son of a Nottingham coal miner, Lawrence was a sickly child, devoted to his refined but domineering mother, who insisted upon his
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, Katherine MansfieldMansfield, Katherine,
1888–1923, British author, b. New Zealand, regarded as one of the masters of the short story. Her original name was Kathleen Beauchamp. A talented cellist, she did not turn to literature until 1908.
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, Sherwood AndersonAnderson, Sherwood,
1876–1941, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Camden, Ohio. After serving briefly in the Spanish-American War, he became a successful advertising man and later a manager of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio.
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, Ernest HemingwayHemingway, Ernest,
1899–1961, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Oak Park, Ill. one of the great American writers of the 20th cent. Life

The son of a country doctor, Hemingway worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star
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, Katherine Anne PorterPorter, Katherine Anne,
1890–1980, American author, b. Indian Creek, Tex., as Callie Russell Porter. Although she published infrequently, she is regarded as a master of the short story.
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, John O'HaraO'Hara, John,
1905–70, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Pottsville, Pa. He worked at a number of jobs and ultimately became a newspaperman before the appearance of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934).
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, Flannery O'ConnorO'Connor, Flannery
(Mary Flannery O'Connor), 1925–64, American author, b. Savannah, Ga., grad. Women's College of Georgia (A.B., 1945), Iowa State Univ. (M.F.A., 1947).
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, J. D. SalingerSalinger, J. D.
(Jerome David Salinger) , 1919–2010, American novelist and short-story writer, b. New York City. His considerable literary stature rests on a small but extremely influential body of work that is noted for its depiction of the loneliness and frustration of
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, John CheeverCheever, John,
1912–82, American author, b. Quincy, Mass. His expulsion from Thayer Academy was the subject of his first short story, published by the New Republic when he was 17. Many of his subsequent works are also semiautobiographical.
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, John UpdikeUpdike, John,
1932–2009, American author, one of the nation's most distinguished 20th-century men of letters, b. Shillington, Pa., grad. Harvard, 1954. In his many novels and stories, written in a well-modulated prose of extraordinary beauty, lyricism, and dazzling
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, Donald BarthelmeBarthelme, Donald
, 1931–89, American writer, b. Philadelphia. The son of an architect, he grew up in Texas, moved (1962) to New York City, worked as a curator and an editor, and taught creative writing at several universities.
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, and Raymond CarverCarver, Raymond,
1938–88, American short-story writer, b. Clatskanie, Oreg. He was raised in the Pacific Northwest, where he often set his sparely written tales of everyday blue-collar life.
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See W. Allen, The Short Story in English (1981); G. Weaver, The American Short Story (1983); C. A. Moser, ed., The Russian Short Story (1986); J. Updike and K. Kenison, ed., The Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Short Story


(in Russian, novella), a small-scale, narrative literary genre, comparable in length to the story (rasskaz) and, consequently, sometimes identified with it, but differing from it in origin, history, and structure. As the Russian word novella indicates, the genre “is nothing other than an as yet unheard-of event” (Goethe). In poeticizing an incident, the short story exposes the heart, the central peripeteia of the plot to its limit, reducing the material of life to the focus of a single event.

Unlike the story—the new literary genre of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that emphasized the verbal crafting of the narrative and gravitated toward highly developed descriptions— the short story is the art of plot creation in its purest form, an art that originated in remote antiquity in close connection with ritual magic and myths and that addressed itself primarily to human action.

The short story plot, which is built on situational antitheses and sharp transitions between them, is a type of plot widely found in many folkloric genres, including the fairy tale, the fable, the medieval anecdote, the fabliau, and the Schwank. The literary short story emerged during the Renaissance in Italy, where the most brilliant example of the genre was G. Boccaccio’s Decameron. Later, the genre appeared in England, France, and Spain (Chaucer, Marguerite d’angoulê me, and Cervantes). Renaissance realism, which revealed the elementally free self-definition of the individual in a world pregnant with change, took shape in the comic and the didactic short story. As it continued to evolve, the short story became differentiated from similar genres, such as the story (rasskaz) and the tale, by its tendency to depict extraordinary and sometimes paradoxical and supernatural events, breaks in the chain of sociohistorical and psychological determinism.

The short story flowered in the romantic era in the works of L. Tieck, H. von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann, P. Mérimée, and E. Poe, as well as in the early works of N. V. Gogol, absorbing the cult of the tragic, ironic play of chance, which destroys the fabric of everyday life.

During the late stage of critical realism (the works of G. de Maupassant, A. P. Chekhov, L. Pirandello, S. Anderson, I. A. Bunin, and S. Zweig), the short story was associated with the revelation of the closed worlds in a society characterized by alienation. Often, short stories were written in fatalistic or grotesque tones. In the modernistic short story (for example, F. Kafka’s works), chance is fetishized and viewed as the blind power of fate, which smashes all human hopes.

In Soviet literature, the short story was a particularly fruitful genre during the 1920’s (I. Babel’, Iu. Olesha, Vs. Ivanov, M. Zoshchenko, and V. Kataev). It captured the atmosphere of the life of the people under the pressure of revolution, as well as the sharp shifts in people’s everyday life and psychology.

From a different point of view, the short story is categorized as the polar opposite of the ocherk (literary sketch), which is often nonfictional.


Freidenberg, O. Poetika siuzheta i zhanra. Leningrad, 1936.
Eikhenbaum, B. M. “O’Genri i teoriia novelly.” In his collection Literatura. Leningrad, 1927.
Vygotskii, L. S. Psikhologiia iskusstva, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1968. Pages 187–208.
Novelle. Edited by J. Kunz. Darmstadt, 1968.
Malmede, H. H. Wege zur Novelle: Theorie und Interpretation der Gattung Novelle in der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft. Stuttgart-Berlin-Cologne-Meinz, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.