For some of us, getting lost in a compelling story is one of life’s great pleasures. Finding the time to read between various commitments – and the often sky-high price of books these days – can sometimes make it tricky to get through a whole novel.
However, one solution to these problems is to enjoy short stories online for free. Websites like The New Yorker, Project Gutenberg, and The Guardian publish some of the best short stories around on their websites – so you can get your literature fix while saving time and money.
With this in mind, we’ve pulled together some great short stories you can read online for free.
1. ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ – Zadie Smith
Described by The Guardian as “a novel in miniature”, Zadie Smith’s ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ is quite long for a short story – however, a little too short to be considered a novella.
It follows Fatou, a young woman from Ivory Coast who works as a maid and nanny for an affluent family in Willesden, as she attempts to navigate a variety of hurdles and carve out her independence.
Bringing together a collection of unlikely elements – a mysterious omniscient narrator, a puzzling embassy, and a hidden game of badminton – Smith distills a complex story into a handful of pages.
2. ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – Ernest Hemingway
Although a problematic character, Ernest Hemingway is widely seen as one of the finest American writers to ever live. His sparse, precise, and objective writing style has since inspired countless scribes but has never been matched.
‘Hills Like White Elephants’ depicts a couple skirting around a touchy subject while waiting for a train, and is certainly a great example of ‘Papa’s’ works. This isn’t just because it showcases his instantly recognisable style, but because it demonstrates his ‘iceberg theory’ in action.
The iceberg theory (or theory of omission) describes Hemingway’s belief that effective writers can create a more ‘true’ and captivating experience for their readers by leaving out the bulk of their story – like an iceberg hidden beneath the waves. But they do this while still communicating 100% of the story’s meaning. You can read more iceberg theory on the Proofed. website.
Once you’ve finished this tale, why not move on to some of Hemingway’s other short works? We’d recommend ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, or, if you’d prefer a more conventional sense of plot, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
3. ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ – Arthur Conan Doyle
If you’re not familiar with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, you might guess that the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are told within the pages of novels. But the majority are short stories.
Conan Doyle published 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories – many in the popular magazine, the Strand. Though, one of the best of the lot (and Conan Doyle’s personal favourite) is certainly ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’.
A little darker than your average Holmes tale, this one follows the detective and Dr Watson as they investigate the two-year-old murder of a young woman. It’s one of the earliest examples of a ‘locked-room mystery’ – where it appears that the murderer couldn’t have possibly entered the crime scene.
The ‘locked-room mystery’ has been used many times over in both film and television, as well as literature (some more successfully than others). But if you’re a fan of a murder mystery, you won’t want to miss out on this bite-size read.
4. ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ – George Saunders
Often hailed as the best living short story writer in English, George Saunders is a modern master of the craft. Although his first and only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the prestigious Man Booker in 2017, Saunders has spent most of his career penning short stories.
Many of the stories from his five collections have appeared in The New Yorker, where you can read a limited number of articles for free each month. Among these is The Semplica Girl Diaries – a story that perfectly showcases Saunders’ unique brand of weird and provocative fiction.
The story – as you might have guessed from the title – is told through diary entries and set in an alternative America where refugees pose as living lawn ornaments in the gardens of wealthy people. It’s a satirical look at society’s continuing obsession with social status.
5. ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ – Katherine Mansfield
A contemporary of literary heavy-hitters like DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf – who referred to Mansfield’s work as “the only writing I have ever been jealous of” – Katherine Mansfield was a key member of the Modernist movement.
In true Modernist spirit, Mansfield experimented with style and subject matter, as she explored various themes, ranging from middle-class malaise to repressed sexuality and existentialism. And while this broad interest (and her famous ill health) led to fluctuations in the quality of her work, some of her best stories rank among the greatest of the 20th century.
Along with tales like ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Garden Party’, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ marks a high point in this New Zealand-born writer’s career.
The story is a melancholic glimpse into the lives of two unmarried sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who’ve sacrificed their own happiness to care for their domineering father. Following his death, the women enter a state of anxious paralysis, not knowing how to move forward. ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ is an often-studied feminist text that explores the ugly effects of patriarchal oppression.
6. ‘The Dead’ – James Joyce
James Joyce is perhaps the most celebrated and influential author to come from the Emerald Isle. His magnum opus, Ulysses, is often described as one of the greatest novels of all time, and his experiments with language and form in the early 20th century were revolutionary.
But before his attention turned to novels, Joyce wrote Dubliners – a collection of short stories, which, as you might have guessed, depict the lives of residents in the Irish capital.
This volume of 15 tales, as described by writer Chris Powers, “ranks among the finest in world literature”, and you can read them all on the Project Gutenberg website. But if you’re only looking for a taster of Joyce’s work, our favourite is the final story in the collection: ‘The Dead’.
‘The Dead’ tells the story of Gabriel Conroy, a mercurial and emotionally immature middle-aged teacher who experiences an epiphany after attending his aunts’ dinner party. Dealing with Irish nationalism and the power the past can have over us, it’s probably Joyce’s most celebrated story.
7. ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ – Alice Munro
Over her astonishing 60-odd-year career, Canadian Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro has written and published over 160 short stories – many of which rank among the best of all time.
Like some of the best writers of short fiction, she captures the quiet conflicts of everyday people with such precision, intensity, and complexity, that they’re anything but mundane and trivial. Unlike many other great writers of short fiction, Munro doesn’t restrict her narratives to single places and times, as she often switches between perspectives and settings.
Among her huge list of literary achievements ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ is often recognised as one of the best. A heartfelt tale of love and memory, the story follows married couple, Fiona and Grant, as they navigate an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
8. ‘Year’s End’ – Jhumpa Lahiri
Born in London and raised in Rhode Island, Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the most exciting contemporary short story writers around. In 2000, her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – which is a rare achievement, as the award is typically given to novels.
As a child of Bengali natives, Lahiri’s stories often explore Asian-American cultural conflicts experienced by first and second-generation immigrants. And, recently, her literary focus has shifted to writing in Italian, which only proves the extent of her talent.
In ‘Year’s End’, from her 2008 collection Unaccustomed Earth, we follow Kaushik, a young college student who learns that his father has remarried before returning home for Christmas. Among other things, it explores how we struggle to communicate in the face of grief, and how (like in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’) the memory of the dead can affect the relationships of the living.
9. ‘Cathedral’ – Raymond Carver
Like Hemingway, Raymond Carver is famous for his trimmed-back, minimalist prose – a style that came to be known as ‘dirty realism’.
However, unlike Hemingway’s stories – which were often set in exotic locations and featured larger-than-life characters (bullfighters, murderers, and war heroes), Carver’s tales are about the working-class everyday people of his native Pacific Northwest America.
With each conservative story, Carver paints a crisp picture of the daily lives of motel workers, vacuum salesmen, dissatisfied husbands, and jilted lovers – finding tragedy and beauty in the most seemingly-mundane moments.
In ‘Cathedral’, a sceptical, close-minded man’s worldview is shaken up when his wife’s blind friend comes to visit.
10. ‘The Lady with the Dog’ – Anton Chekhov
From Mansfield to Hemingway and Faulkner to Saunders, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Anton Chekhov inspired nearly every major short story writer that came after him.
His restrained yet tactile prose is praised for the way it poignantly brings meaning to the often bleak and humdrum lives of provincial Russian people in the late 19th century.
‘The Lady with the Dog’ (or ‘Lady with Lapdog’ or ’The Lady with the Pet Dog’, depending on which translation you read) is a perfect example of Chekhov’s tendency to ask questions, instead of answering them. It follows a philanderer who finds himself struggling with feelings of intense love for the first time in his life.
11. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ – Edgar Allan Poe
If you’re a lover of horror and eerie, suspenseful literature, why not check out ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe?
One of the shorter stories on this list, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ introduces us to an unnamed narrator, who describes the details of a grisly murder they committed, all while trying to convince us that they aren’t insane. It’s an intense, concentrated dose of gothic literature, and a great example of the unsettling effects that an unreliable narrator can have on the reader.
Poe, a poet as well as a short story writer, is considered a master of mystery and morbidity. He’s credited with writing one of the first detective stories (‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’), and his creepy tales, such as ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, still have a heavy influence on horror writers to this day.
You can read all of these stories and more over on the Poe Museum website.
12. ‘A Private Experience’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After the immense success of her novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published the 2009 short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. It continued her work of, as James Copnall said, “attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”.
‘A Private Experience’, the third entry in the collection, tells the story of two women who seek refuge in an abandoned shop during a riot between Hausa (Muslim) and Igbo (Christian) communities in Nigeria.
It’s a tale that explores the solidarity of women in the face of conflict and violence – and demonstrates how empathy can triumph in the face of our perceived religious, political, and ethnic differences.
From creepy classics to contemporary social satires, we hope you’ve enjoyed this list of some of the best short stories you can find online for free.
For more reading ideas, check out the books, literature, and writing section of our website. And if you’re interested in the short stories specifically, why not book a spot at our monthly short story club?