Three Must-Read Short Stories for High School and College Students
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Three Must-Read Short Stories for High School and College Students

To captivate the mind, here are three short stories that every high school and college student should read by the end of their careers, written by Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson and Katherine Chopin. Short stories differ from novels because they tend to develop one main character with one plot and one theme, yet are still vital to American, British and many other countries' literary histories.

Although short stories and novels both have the same elements – plot, character and theme – the short story develops these much more quickly than the novel due to limited spacing. A short story will typically have one plot, even if that plot has a twist or two, whereas a novel may have many plots built into one story. Characters will also be limited in number, perhaps only being qualified by a physical feature, a name or a personality trait. The theme will typically be simple and carry through the entire short story.

Although there are exceptions to every rule, the short story is the “just right” chair, the “just right” bowl of porridge and the “just right” bed from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If short stories were any shorter, they would be flash fiction. If they were any longer, they would be a novella or novel. Somewhere in between falls the short story.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County – Mark Twain

The narrator of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County never reveals his name. He is on a quest for a friend to find information about the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley, yet does not believe the Reverend actually exists. When the narrator comes to the mining town called Angel’s Camp where the Reverend reported lived, he comes across a man named Simon Wheeler and begins to question him; however, the only answers the narrator receives are those about a man named Jim Smiley, a man who would make a bet on anything. According to Wheeler, Smiley “most always come out winner.” He bet on dog and cock fights. He bet which bird would fly first from the fence. When the parson’s wife, who had been ill for some time, began to get better, Jim bet she wouldn’t. If he could not find anyone to bet against him, he’d change sides.

After the death of his fighting dog, Jim Smiley decided to catch a frog and teach it to jump. He claimed that all a frog wanted was education. After three months he showed his frog, Dan’l Webster, off to the town. When Jim ran into a stranger, the stranger said there was nothing special about Dan’l. Jim put his frog up against any frog in the county, claiming it could jump higher. The stranger said he would take that bet but did not have a frog. Smiley put his money and frog on the bar and went in search of a frog for the stranger. While Smiley is gone, the stranger gives Dan’l a quail shot.

Smiley returns and the two men set the frogs to race. Although the stranger’s frog doesn’t jump nearly as high as Dan’l usually does, Dan’l doesn’t move. The stranger takes the money and leaves, saying again that there is nothing special about Dan’l. Angrily, Jim turns his frog upside down and he burps out a large amount of the shot, which had made Dan’l too heavy to jump. Jim runs after the stranger but never catches him.

At this point, Simon Wheeler responds to someone calling his name and the narrator realizes he will not get information about Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley from Wheeler. The narrator leaves.

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

At 10 a.m. on June 27th, the village square began to fill with people. The children came first, boys anxious to begin their mountain of smooth stones. In this town the Lottery concluded in a little less than two hours, but in other villages, the Lottery could take up to two days due to the sheer number of people. This village had less than one hundred people, which meant after the lottery, the village could go about with the noonday meal. When the husbands came they talked about taxes and their wives followed with gossip.

Each year, the concept of a new box from which to draw is brought up, but nothing ever came from it. Talk of tradition floated amongst the village. Mr. Adams, head of the Adams household, informed Old Man Warner, who was participating in his 77th Lottery, that the North Village is talking about giving up the Lottery. Warner snorts, calling the other town fools, spitting out, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” One by one each male head of the household was called to choose a slip of paper from the box and requested to keep it folded in his hand. When each was allowed to look, Bill Hutchinson had drawn the slip with the penciled black circle.

Tessie Hutchinson, Bill’s wife, began to throw a fit, claiming it wasn’t fair and that Bill was rushed when choosing; however, the Lottery continued. The marked slip of paper and four clean pieces of paper (one for Bill, his wife, and three children) are put back in the box. Each person, youngest first, was called to the box to choose the slip. Tessie chose the slip with the black dot. The villagers armed themselves with stones and handed Bill’s youngest son pebbles. Tessie was still protesting how Bill hadn’t had enough time to choose when the first stone hit her in the side of the head. The town did not stop throwing.

Desiree’s Baby – Katherine Chopin

As a toddler, Desiree fell asleep in front of the stone pillars of the front gate of the Valmonde home in New Orleans and this is where Monsieur Valmonde found her. Madame Valmonde did not care that the child’s origin was questionable or that she had no name. Madame believed that Providence had sent this child to her because she had not borne any of her own. For the next 16 years the Valmondes raised Desiree until she stood against the same pillar on the same day Armand Aubigny rode by. He instantly fell in love with her. He also claimed not to care that her birth origin was unknown or that she was nameless, boasting that he could give her his name that had help prominence for so many years.

After they married, Desiree gave Armand a son. Although Madame Valmonde had seen the baby after birth, she made a trip after not seeing Desiree and the baby for a month. She is in disbelief of the child and Desiree believes it is because he has grown so much. Desiree is excited over the fact that his fingernails had been trimmed just that morning. She tells her mother that Armand has even stopped punishing the Negroes.

After Desiree’s baby turns three months old, Armand changes as well. He refuses to make eye contact, avoids Desiree and practically ignores the child. Desiree is miserable. As she contemplates she watches a quadroon boy fanning her baby. She looks at one then the other and back again. Calling for her husband who is on the other side of the room, she demands to know what this means. He informs her that the child is not white and that she is not white. She reminds him of her grey eyes, brown hair and skin that is whiter than his. She writes her mother, who welcomes her and the baby home. Armand tells her to go. Instead of taking the road that leads to the Valmondes, Desiree cuts through the fields and disappears among the reeds and willows of the bayou.

A few weeks later, Armand begins to burn Desiree’s clothes and possessions, and the baby’s furniture. While going through letters from their engagement, he finds a letter from his mother to his father. The letter praises God that Armand will never know his mother belonged to a race “cursed with the brand of slavery.”

Can't get enough to read? Try Must-Read Books, Stories and Plays.

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Comments (4)

I'm not clear on why these three?

These were three that I read in both high school and college. I find them to be both engaging and entertaining, with room for the imagination. There are only three listed so the article didn't get too long (golden rule of writing for the web, right?). I plan to have more articles in similar format with other short stories. Thank you for your question.

Thanks for sharing this interesting synopsis. Of these three, I have to admit I've only read "The Lottery". I think our High School had the same curriculum for a very long time, because my 8 older siblings read the same stories as I did in High School. . .years before. In College, I studied works by Edgar Allan Poe, Willa Cather, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and others. One of my favorite short stories is Poe's "The Black Cat".

I'm glad I could introduce you to some new literature, Sharla. There are so many short stories out there that it was hard to pick just three. I don't recall reading "The Black Cat," but Poe is an amazing author. I will definitely have to look into it. Thank you for sharing one of your favorites with me.