Death is a common theme in literature, and many of the finest writers of short fiction have explored the fear, event, and aftermath of death using the short-story form. Below, we select and introduce ten of the very best classic short stories which have death as their theme, ranging from the Gothic and macabre through to the realist, naturalist, and modernist modes.
- Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’.
Among Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous tales, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is one of the shortest. In just a few pages, Poe paints a powerful picture of a luxurious masked ball, which is then interrupted and ultimately destroyed by the presence of a mysterious figure.
This 1842 story is about a mysterious disease or plague which kills the sufferer within half an hour, causing pain, sudden dizziness, and profuse bleeding. To avoid this terrible pestilence, a wealthy noble named Prince Prospero retreats with his retinue of a thousand of his friends and hangers-on to one of his abbeys.
- Henry James, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’.
In this longer tale from 1903 – it’s so long it is sometimes categorised as a ‘novella’ – Henry James uses his interest in delay to explore a friendship between a man and a woman which never turns into a romantic relationship because the man, John Marcher, fears that something terrible is going to befall him. What follows is one of James’s finest stories about death and how irrational fear of death at every turn can prompt us to hide away from living.
His stalwart and patient female companion, May, stands by his side and tries to help him make sense of this mysterious and imprecise threat which he feels hangs over him. Will this ‘beast’ lurking in the jungle of his unconscious ever be unleashed? Perhaps James’s finest example of a subversion of the traditional love story.
- Kate Chopin, ‘The Story of an Hour’.
Some short stories can say all they need to do in just a few pages, and Kate Chopin’s three-page 1894 story ‘The Story of an Hour’ (sometimes known as ‘The Dream of an Hour’) is a classic example. Yet those three pages remain tantalisingly ambiguous, perhaps because so little is said, so much merely hinted at.
Chopin’s short story is, upon closer inspection, a subtle, studied analysis of death, marriage, and personal wishes. The story focuses on an hour in the life of a married woman who has just learnt that her husband has apparently died.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Markheim’.
A year before Stevenson completed his short Gothic horror masterpiece, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he wrote ‘Markheim’ (1885), a short story loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the title character murders a shopkeeper and is plagued by a series of ‘visions’ in the wake of this horrific deed. Are these ghostly apparitions, or the pricking of his own conscience? Following Poe and Dickens and others, Stevenson leaves the matter open to question …
- Anton Chekhov, ‘The Death of a Government Clerk’.
This 1883 short story by the Russian master of the form focuses on Ivan Chervyakov, a government official, who sneezes upon one of his superiors while in the theatre. The stress of having committed such a blunder eats away at him and he ends up going home and dying of sheer embarrassment.
- James Joyce, ‘The Sisters’.
The opening story in Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, ‘The Sisters’ is narrated by a young boy whose friendship with a recently deceased Catholic priest, Father Flynn, starts to concern him as the narrator picks up rumours and whispers about the priest’s behaviour and reputation.
Did Flynn do something wrong? Joyce doesn’t tell us – but the boy’s dreams and nightmares suggest that he may have been aware of something improper concerning the priest’s actions but, being only a child at the time, he had repressed it.
- D. H. Lawrence, ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’.
If Joyce’s story is about the psychological fallout that might follow the death of someone we know, this 1911 story, one of Lawrence’s earliest stories, is about how a young wife gradually begins to fear the worst when her husband doesn’t come home after work one night. The story focuses on a miner’s wife, Lizzie Bates, living among the mining communities of Nottinghamshire. When Lizzie’s husband doesn’t come home from his work down the mine, she is angry … and then worried. What has happened to him? We follow Elizabeth’s thoughts and fears across the course of one evening as she waits for her husband to return.
- Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’.
Several of Mansfield’s best-known stories focus on death: see ‘The Garden Party’, her 1920 story about a young woman who is greatly shaken by the death of a man from the local village. This 1922 story also takes death as one of its main themes: it focuses on two sisters, whose father has recently died. It’s largely plotless: the sisters make arrangements for the funeral, recall a visit from their nephew while their father was still alive, and wonder whether to fire their maid. Part of the power of the story is its understated switching between moments of comedy (told in flashback, the moment when their nephew, Cyril, tried to make their irascible and hard-of-hearing father understand what he is saying) and pathos (the two unmarried and middle-aged sisters cut an almost tragic figure). We have analysed this story in more detail here.
- Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Sweat’.
Hurston (1891-1960) is perhaps best-known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic of African-American literature published in 1937. But she also wrote numerous classic short stories, and ‘Sweat’ is a fine example of her mastery of this short form. This 1927 story is about an unhappy marriage between Delia Jones and her husband, Sykes, who brings home a rattlesnake one day to taunt his wife (who has an extreme fear of snakes). When the snake bites and kills Sykes himself one night, the story becomes an interesting exploration of death and a put-upon wife’s reaction to the demise of her husband.
- Ernest Hemingway, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’.
This 1936 short story is probably Hemingway’s best-known and most widely studied short story; it is also one of his longest. Originally published in Esquire magazine, the story focuses on a writer, Harry, who has travelled to Africa and is trying to change careers, from writing to painting. However, he fails to treat a wound and gangrene sets in, slowly eating away at him. This story is about a myriad things, but one of the prominent themes is that of the artist, and how an artist (in this case, a writer) deals with failure, with all of the works that he knows he will never write, and with losing a handle on his craft. Hemingway wrote the story when he had fears about his own writing productivity and the story is, in some respects, autobiographical.