In reply to #11 and #12, please believe me that I am not some Machiavelli or Svengali. I have no sinister plans to try to take over the world by finding out what short stories people like to read. I'm not that subtle. I just thought it would be kind of a fun question which would give people a chance to write about stories they like. In reply to #13, I agree with you about Chekhov. I think his "Lady with a Pet Dog" is one of the best stories ever written, and I admire the way he leaves it unresolved.
I love questions like this. You could compose an AP prompt about it: What kind of response is the questioner attempting to provoke?
It can be inferred from the impossibility of a definitive answer that the questioner is seeking opinions and does not expect a consensus, but is rather hoping to solicit personal favorites from a knowlegeable audience. My candidate for greatest short story in any language is Maugham's "Rain," and I am ready to defend my nominee against all comers. Granted, if I were better read in Japanese or Russian or Dutch or Spanish, I would have a wider, or at least a different pool to fish in. If I were a short story junkie and knew my way through Updike, Carver, and Dahl, my choice would certainly be better informed. And, of course, if I were one of those who dislike Maugham or stories that don't say more plainly what they mean or stories that don't end happily or stories that aren't funny--well, there's a greatest story for everybody.
The subject proposed implies that we have read a large number of short stories written in any language, presumably in translation, as I doubt even someone who is multilingual can read all the existing languages.
It strikes me as odd that someone rated this discussion as "excellent", since the question posed points directly to the impossibility of an honest answer.
Furthermore, it baffles me that previous posts have ignored the phrase written in any language and have focused solely on stories written in English. Is no-one here familiar with Anton Chejov, the most outstanding Russian naturalist short story writer, Guy de Maupassant, the French counterpart of Edgar Allan Poe, Lin Yutang, a Chinese writer who shaped popular folk tales into wonderful pieces of Literature, Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian narrator some of whose short stories were chosen to illustrate chaos theory, Ephraim Kishon, an Israeli mastermind in the genre? And this is just a minute sample of the number of great past and present short story writers in the world, all of them translated into English.
Summing up, I would ask the person who posted this discussion to narrow down its scope. I also respectfully ask those who "rushed in where angels..." -you know how the quotation begins and ends- to reconsider why you plunged headlong into your favorites without weighing the implications of the question.
The validity of any answer is jeopardized by the question itself, and I feel sadly disappointed in the outcome.
I have to go with Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." It includes all of the traits necessary for a great short story: suspense, conflict, well-drawn characters and a surprise ending. Additionally, Poe creates a creepy mood rarely found in any stories--except maybe his own "The Tell-Tale Heart."
I have already chosen "The Cask of Amontillado," but there is another story that seems technically perfect and apparently gets a lot of interest and discussion in classrooms, judging from all the questions and comments in eNotes. That is the weird and wonderful story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.
I have to agree with the choice of the short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. The above post says it all about why the story is a classic. I would choose it also for the impact it has on its readers where students truly cannot believe the ending. More than any other story with a surprise ending, students will voluntarily go back through the story looking for clues they missed, teaching them about careful reading, implications, and the nuances of meaning which words can express. With all the emphasis on reading tests, this story teaches students the skills the test requires besides being a world class short story with great writing.
Wow, I could never presume to say which is the best ever, but I could offer a favorite. I haven't read as many short stories as a lot of people, but do teach some every year. I think my favorite story to teach is "The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant" by W.D. Wetherell. It's got some humor and deals with a young teen boy who is trying to figure out what's important in life.
As is the case with so much great writing, the author gave voice to things that I thought about years ago as a kid.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce ranks as one of the masterpieces in American literature. It has all of the ingredients for an excellent read; and along the way, the reader might learn something about the the Civil War.
Why is this story great?
The protagonist Peyton Farquhar plays his part well. He stands for the Southern cause in the Civil War. Everything about Farquhar represents the Old South: slavery, arrogance, gentility. He even claims to be an expert in hanging. His "imperious nature" [basically bossiness and arrogance] prevent him from serving in the war, but he still supports the south in whatever way he can.
The element of time encases the story much like Poe's "Masque." Southern time moves at a slow pace so that the person can enjoy his life. Army time finds the main character moving with the drum beat and at a more staccato pace. When the reader thinks that Farquhar has escaped and is running for home, the pace build like a musical crescendo until at the last moment: Farquhar falls to his death by hanging.
The ending of the story surprises the reader. Just as he sees his wife and runs toward her, Farquhar's noose snaps his neck. The entire second half of the story has been an illusion for the reader.
As Stuart C. Woodruff, one of the story's closest analysts, puts it, "somehow the reader is made to participate in the split between imagination and reason, to feel that the escape is real while he knows it is not."
Bierce's style qualifies as both descriptive and ambiguous. Providing detailed information but also withholding important aspects of the story gives the reader a false sense of just another "man escapes" story. Here are just some of the story's components that are described in great detail:
- Farquhar's appearance and history;
- the appearance of the bridge;
- the military protocol of the hanging;
- Farquhar's thoughts before his execution; and
- the process of his escape
The story requires a second reading to find what clues were missed indicating the hanging was in progress rather than a dream sequence in the mind of Farquhar. This story like other classics that have the surprise waiting at the end of the story will find this a delicious read.
I'm torn, and influenced so much by what my students enjoyed in class. "The Most Dangerous Game" (Connell) is one. Another is "The Sniper" (O'Flaherty), as well as "Lamb to the Slaughter" (Dahl).
Poe's stories are always excellent. I never tire of reading them. Poe is credited with making short stories "a viable literary form. Poe was also considered a master of scary stories:
His tales of terror are considered among the finest ever produced in the horror genre.
Poe's literary influence does not stop here: his name is also associated with stories of super sleuths—making him the father of the detective story...
He also pioneered, some critics say invented, the genre of detective fiction with his story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
There is no question that "The Cask of Amontillado is a classic, as well. However, I am someone who likes surprises at the end, and all of these authors have done just that. I have also particularly enjoy (perhaps more than any) is William Faulker's "A Rose for Emily." This is surprising and creepy at the same time. And the surprise is not delivered until the last few lines of the story: a classic that is hard to ignore!!
It's hard to argue with the "Cask of Amontillado." In fact, I'm going to defy the terms of the question somewhat and just name my favorite, which is "Shooting an Elephant," by George Orwell. This story brings out so many of the contradictions of imperialism, and shows how it corrupts both the colonized and the colonizer, and is ultimately based on brute force. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that it's the greatest short story in any language, but it is truly brilliant.