short story

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short story

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 Romanorum 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 Poe and Guy de Maupassant. Notable among the exponents of the form are Henry James, O. Henry, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Chekhov, Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, John O'Hara, Flannery O'Connor, J. D. Salinger, John Cheever, John Updike, Donald Barthelme, and Raymond Carver.


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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.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.
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