The 27 Best Chekhov Short Stories

 

…in no particular order…

The Steppe by Anton Chekhov (1888)

…if this piece of fiction doesn’t have ‘utility’ in buckets then how can fiction be said to have a use at all?

 

‘Verochka’ by Anton Chekhov (1887)

To take an early story such as ‘Verochka’ when, supposedly, Chekhov was still some way from ‘mastering his art’, and to wonder at how good it is, does seem to miss the point. Could you ask: how might it be improved? In which ways, exactly, does it fall short? What does it do, after all, for the reader? There must be, of course, stories by Chekhov which don’t amount to much, which don’t achieve what Chekhov sets out to achieve (which is what exactly?); however, ‘Verochka’ is not one of these stories. If one were ever to ask, what is literature for, you might be well advised to refer the questioner to this story, and simply say: “This.”

If “utility” is an odd word to use around literature, one might well wonder at it especially when used about such a story as this: getting us roped into this protagonist’s thinking and feeling so that we are utterly trussed up by the end, caught, pinned down, exposed… one might as well ‘gaze at the lamp for a long, long time’, then shake your head and start packing.

 

‘The Kiss’ by Anton Chekhov (1887) – Turning the love story on its head, or turning it inside out, or…

Most people will know Chekhov through such quotations as this, ascribed to Chekhov and quoted and quoted ever since: ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’ And it is in stories such as ‘The Kiss’ where such advice would seem to most clearly apply: it’s tight, beautifully structured, sharp. But for all that, this reputed advice of Chekhov, sells Chekhov horribly short, certainly in masterful stories such as ‘The Steppe’, but in stories such as this too, where one may be impressed by the sheer ‘craft’ of it, but there’s more to writing a good story than editing.

Seeing the protagonist get so thoroughly caught in so tawdry and shallow a way, caught by himself so knowingly and laughably, yet so completely – well, the fact it’s so convincing is a salutary lesson to us all.

 

‘The Name Day Party’ by Anton Chekhov (1888)

The momentum of this story is interesting; it starts so oddly, for a story of this length, and then the day has caught you up before you know it, very much as days do, and you are swept along very much like Olga Mikhaylovna is, and the “interminable conversation” that’s dismissed at the start comes back to get you again and again. It’s interesting to compare this to Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” (1922), as well as to James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1914) – as it is a kind of precursor for both, at least it feels to be. This is one of the key Chekhov stories that Mansfield used as models for her own stories. I wonder if Joyce was similarly inspired. But the three stories are interesting to compare – especially how they are structured. You could argue that it is Chekhov’s story that is the more subtle of the three in the way it is structured, yet the one that nonetheless works best.

You’re not sure where you’re being led here at first, but then you’re suddenly caught in the current and you can see where it’s taking you, but you’re nonetheless caught.

 

‘A Dreary Story’ by Anton Chekhov (1889)

Maybe this is the best period of Chekhov’s stories – 1887-1889 – from ‘The Kiss’, the ‘The Steppe’, ‘The Name Day Party’ and then this! However, to know that ‘Ward 6’ and ‘Adriana’ and ‘The Black Monk’ are yet to come, as well as ‘The Trilogy’ of ‘About: Truth, Love & Freedom, and of course ‘The Lady & her Little Dog’… SO, what’s so good about ‘A Dreary Story’? Maybe this: “’Know thyself’ is fine, practical advice, only it’s a pity that the ancients didn’t get round to showing us how to make use of their advice.” And other such tit bits that fall from the mouths of the characters that Chekhov must have loved as much as we do.

I feel this ‘blurring of the boundary between protagonist and author’ is key to Chekhov’s fiction – the reader is always being so subtly shunted around between points of view and different sensitivities and levels of irony – nothing is crystal clear, everything is shifting, and yet everything is as it should be: life is a mess, our subjectivity a mess, and so, fiction should be too: however, it is Chekov’s rendering of it that makes it also deeply engaging – our empathy and our judgement are equally engaged and pull us all over the place like a dangerous river.

 

‘The Grasshopper’ by Anton Chekhov (1892)

On a personal level – the level of a reader reading it – it fair breaks your heart: what Olga does to Dymov, but more importantly almost, to herself: is this what we all do, to ourselves, in one way or another, expose ourselves as horribly as just plain not much.

Grabbing hold of the reader right in the viscera is a difficult thing to do – but one must wonder at the utility of it. sentimentalism is a good example of where the writer fails to do this; Chekhov’s treatment of sentiment soaked goings on, falling in love, illicit affairs, death etc, is perhaps the best evidence of his greatness as a writer: it’s not just that they are handled subtly, and with just the right amount of irony, they are simply perfectly balanced – so the catharsis one gets is as deep a dose as one could wish for. Whether catharsis has utility is itself not beyond question, though it is here.

 

‘Ward No. 6’ by Anton Chekhov (1892)

Though you can see it coming – this is what makes it happening all the more painful – what give the piece its solidly tragic dynamic – there is nothing at all that Ragin can do to escape his faith – not because of the Gods, but because of who he is / who we are.

 

‘Adriana’ by Anton Chekhov (1895)

Despite the “subtly irony” created “by the device of the author narrator” the depth of the fall into the narrator’s plight is, as it must necessarily be, a function of the depth of the piece of work. Indeed, what does depth even mean here? How can one piece of writing be “deeper” than another, especially when there’s a authorial tongue in cheek? Whatever the ironic distance between reader and protagonist in Adriana, we find ourselves so quickly sunk, fully mired and the emotional reality of his predicament is all too thick and profound. But aren’t “thick” and “profound” here just synonyms for “deep”? So in what, exactly, does such depth consist? In the expertly created illusion that we are experiencing the feelings of the subject. An electricity pylon will ruin the illusion of the nineteenth-century, just as assuredly as an out of place adverb, or the least hint of piece of sentimentalism, will ruin the illusion of another human being. We might be invited to laugh at Shamokhin, and we may well do, but it will be a bitter laughter.

 

‘The Black Monk’ by Anton Chekhov (1894)

This is such a haunting and sad story, but also with such a clear allegorical meaning for his time – the conflict between genius and science – that there is every possibility of the story lumbering about with this-means-this and that-means-that moments; but, of course, Chekhov escapes such traps, and instead of producing something potentially facile, he once again produces something sublime, something far beyond what an allegory might mean. Just as the best fairy-tales are more than their moral, or those in which the moral gets lost, or the beast parables are the ones that defy easy explanation, all of Chekhov’s stories are impossible to summarise: this story means this! This is seen in miniature too, the symbolism in such lines as “he could hear the dull murmur of the pines behind him” is so simple, so plain and so impossible to glibly explain. With Chekhov there’s no scheme of meaning: “The gloomy pines with their shaggy roots which had seen him here the previous year looking so young, joyful and lively, no longer talked in whispers, but stood motionless and dumb, as though they did not recognize him.” So, what do these exposed tree roots on the river bank symbolize? The best answer, that answer that is closest to the mark, is: nothing.

The supernatural in a story can only ever be apparent – stories don’t do God: divine intervention just doesn’t fit in narrative fiction; it hasn’t done since the middle-ages. But the supernatural and belief in God are a fundamental part of human experience – what to do? No other author deals with God and the supernatural as well as the agnostic Chekhov does, which makes one wonder.

 

‘Murder’ by Anton Chekhov (1895)

Here we have Chekhov’s deft movement across the page, a nice plain bit of description but at the same time the dull thud of narrative that resounds, weirdly, in the reader’s viscera.

The key to credibility in fiction is sentimentality – exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness or sadness achieve nothing because they lack credibility. The reader doesn’t buy into it. Yes, opinions on what’s sentimental and what’s not vary, in the same way as opinions on what fiction is credible or not – they perfectly overlap as they amount to the same thing. The ending is without sentimentality. The victim is dealt with unsentimentally. The plight of each of the participants in this murder is given to us unsentimentally. Even the weather, the scene, the houses, the puddles on the ground: unsentimentally.

 

‘A Woman’s Kingdom’ by Anton Chekhov (1894)

Another of my favourite Chekhov stories. One is very much like a twelve-year old girl, with a couple of dozen ‘best friends’. So unlike ‘Murder’ from 1895, or the two stories ‘Peasants’ (1897) and ‘In the Ravine’ (1900), or a raft of others; here is Chekhov’s genius. True, some of his stories are a little ‘samey’ – where someone misses a chance of life/love and grows old / disappointed / returns and nothing is the same etc. – but despite this tendency to revisit such themes and wallow somewhat in them, Chekov also gives us such utterly different and startling stories such as this, or ‘Murder’ or ‘The Black Monk’ or ‘A Dreary Story’, so you never truly know where you are going form the first sentence.

Did the world – the Russian world – need, in 1894 – a depiction of a “woman’s kingdom”? And if so, why? What would such a world look like? It’s an interesting title for this story and points us to considering what we have here as though it were a piece of science-fiction or dystopian fiction, in that we are being encouraged to consider the status-quo (of 1894 Russia) where women are very much kingdom-less. And indeed, even in this little world that Chekhov gives us – how terribly circumscribed such a woman’s kingdom is. Anna Akimovna, for all her wealth and freedom, is trapped. There’s no escape from the number of traps that are there for women in the regular world of the late-nineteenth century Russian patriarchy anyway: women, to attain meaning in their lives, as well as their daily bread, seem utterly doomed. What might be called an “interesting way of looking at it” is really a great example of how fiction makes us look at the same old thing anew, and therefore see it for what it is.

 

 ‘The Two Volodyas’ by Anton Chekhov (1893)

It’s strange how short this story is; so much happens in it. Perhaps a good place to start with Chekhov and admire how adeptly he creates such compelling and well-imagined fictional worlds. However, I do find this story a little ‘samey’ – it’s a variation on such well-worn Chekhovian themes. The twist isn’t quite enough of a twist, to not seem like little more than a twist. At the time of publication, it was heavily cut by editors afraid of its risqué bits – so all were ruthlessly cut out. Chekhov commented: “they’ve brushed aside the middle, gnawed off the end, and so drained my story of colour that it makes me sick.”

“Can burying oneself alive really solve life’s problems?” Sophia Lvovna asks the young nun. Posing a question in the way he does, putting it in her moth, in that story, and directing it at this young nun, Chekhov really does pose such a well-worn question for the reader a million times more effectively. Fiction really does operate at a much higher level than the cut and thrust and plod, plod, plod of day-to-day, regular, referential communication. Therin lies its utility.

 

‘The Student’ by Anton Chekhov (1894)

This story was apparently Chekhov’s favourite.

Taking issue with impressionism – seeking to convey the sensory impressions of an incident or scene, as opposed to merely telling the reader what objectively happened, which we see take off with the likes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, through to the novels of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad – may suggest that Chekhov’s later work is work in which seeking to defamiliarise is a key component: does this little story do such a thing for notions of happiness, contentment, meaning in life?

 

‘The House with the Mezzanine’ by Anton Chekhov (1896)

There are a few weird moments in the story where you catch yourself asking – what just happened there? Or, where am I now? Or, why do I feel this way? There are a number of arguments or positions set up, but they all dissolve into nothing after a moment, and all we’re left with is an impression of that moment, that feeling, or a vague anxiety about what is or isn’t happening. If Chekhov is pointedly up to something different here, then it might well consist in this ‘vagueness’ that’s spread a bit more thickly than in his other stories – but it’s what makes this story more ‘enchanting’ than many of the others. When the narrator tells us at one point: “I remember and cherish all these little details and I vividly remember the whole of the day, although it wasn’t particularly eventful.” we’re left stumped: what details? Indeed, we’re not sure what just happened. And Chekhov seems to be wrong-footing the reader with shifts, drops, swerves in the point of view / narration – that are just a little disconcerting, and almost subtle enough to be unnoticed, yet they register – se we’re always feeling a little unsure of ourselves, or what is happening, much as the protagonist is. Chekhov captures, in such a roundabout way, the transitory and provisional nature of existence.

 

‘Peasants’ by Anton Chekhov (1897)

This story, along with ‘In the Ravine’ (1900), deal with the peasants, of whom Tolstoy said he knew nothing. They’re interesting figures in Chekhov’s fiction – treated with just the same lack of sentimentality as any of Chekhov’s characters, as well as mercilessly exposed in their vanity and other failings, but also given to us as people with whom we can’t but deeply and utterly empathise. Oh yeah, they’re people too, the reader might tell themselves. Oh yeah. So, they’re just as beautiful and crass, as deep and shallow, as maddening and endearing, with the same profound humanity as any and every Chekhovian character: it’s as though Chekhov, like death, is the great leveller. Was this some kind of vaunted moral purpose in 1897 literature – to convince the reader of the humanity of the recently liberated serfs? Or was Chekhov involved in a wider reaching project: to convince the reader of the humanity of other people generally?

“Dew glistened on green bushes which seemed to be looking at themselves in the river. A warm breeze was blowing and everything became so pleasant. What a beautiful morning!”

& then this… “When someone in a family has been terribly ill for a long time, when all hope has been given up, there are horrible moments when those near and dear to him harbour a timid, secret longing, deep down inside, for him to die. Only children fear the death of a loved one and the very thought of it fills them with terror.”

…two simple examples of the subtle and shocking way Chekhov has about his fiction – to throw run of the mill events in narrative – the pending death of a character, or the oblivious beauty of the countryside – and make them new.

 

‘A Visit to Friends’ by Anton Chekhov (1898)

For some reason Chekhov took a dislike to this story – “rather poor I think” – and refused to include it in his collected works as he was compiling in the final years of his life. Knowing this, it’s rather easy for the reader to take a dislike to it. And when one is looking for reasons to dislike…

This one does feel a little ‘ploddy’, a little tired, a little not-bothered – witness: “The tower’s black shadow stretching over the earth, far into the fields… all this was just like a dream.” Or “He felt annoyed and his only thought was that here, in a country garden on a moonlit night, close to a beautiful, loving, thoughtful girl, he felt the same apathy as on Little Bronny Street: evidently this type of romantic situation had lost its fascination, like that prosaic depravity.”

…it’s as though for once, in late Chekhov, the ‘working-out’ is on show, and the effect is undermined: the ambiguity and the beauty of Chekhov exists in his ability to give us just enough of a character or a scene to render it, where he goes too far, as he does here, how well he does it in his other stories is all too clear.

 

‘Ionych’ by Anton Chekhov (1898)

He’s maddening. He’s Ionych. He’s us. Etc.

Just go back and see the Turkins. For the love of God. Before it’s too late!

“And that’s all one can say about him.” Indeed.

 

‘In the Ravine’ by Anton Chekhov (1900)

Another of the best stories of Chekhov.

“The sun had set and a thick, milk-white mist was rising over the river, the fences and the clearings near the factories. And now with darkness swiftly advancing and lights twinkling down below, when the mist seemed to be hiding a bottomless abyss, Lipa and her mother, who were born beggars and were resigned to staying beggars for the rest of their lives, surrendering everything except their own frightened souls to others – perhaps even they imagined, for one fleeting moment, that they mattered in the vast mysterious universe, where countless lives were being lived out, and that they had a certain strength and were better than someone else. They felt good sitting up there, high above the village and they smiled happily, forgetting that eventually they would have to go back down again.” – to give the most doomed and benighted figure in literature such a dousing of vanity might not be fun, but it certainly is novel and surprising.

 

‘Disturbing the Balance’ (incomplete) by Anton Chekhov (1905)

This is a curious fragment – nearly complete? – from Chekov written in the final year of his life. It makes you wonder where his fiction was headed. I wonder what he was reading in these final years.

“Whether they could hear the ringing of the city and monastery bells through the open windows, or the peacock crying in the courtyard, or someone coughing in the hall, none of them could help thinking that Mikhail Ilich was seriously ill, that the doctors had ordered him to be taken abroad as soon as he felt a little better. But he felt better one day and worse the next – this they were at a loss to understand – but as time passed the uncertainty began to try everyone’s nerves.” – a masterclass in who-knows-what in narrative fiction…

 

‘The Bishop’ by Anton Chekhov (1902)

If stories don’t stumble by accident upon profound wisdom. If art isn’t, whatever else, accidental… the judgement of the author is on display with each word, with everything that is included, as well as everything that’s left out… which might be best shown through errors of judgement… and yet…

“He felt thinner and weaker and more insignificant than anyone else, and it seemed the entire past had vanished somewhere far, far away and would never be repeated or continued. ‘How wonderful!’ he thought. ‘How wonderful!’

…thus the reader dies too.

 

‘The Bride’ by Anton Chekhov (1903)

Possibly the greatest line in any short story ever is identified by Paul Debreczeny in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s later work:

At the start of the story it seems to the protagonist that ‘somewhere else, beneath the sky, above the trees, far beyond the town, in the fields and forests, spring was unfolding its own secret, so lovely rich and sacred.’ This, from Chekhov’s last completed story, is so beautiful because it’s so damn incisive – right on the money: we are plagued by our own delusions, and whilst we utterly deserve them, they sustain us too. 

 

‘Kashtanka’ by Anton Chekhov (1887)

Whilst this is a story about a dog, it just goes to show that every story ever written is about people. And the reader most of all. The death of Ivan Ivanitch (a gander) is almost as moving as the life of Ivan Denisovitch, in Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1962) or even the death of Ivan Ilyich, in late Tolstoy’s famous ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ (1886).

‘…and chased away the darkness. Auntie saw that there was no stranger in the room…Who was the stranger who could not be seen? …Auntie did not understand what her master was saying, but she saw from his face that he, too, was expecting something dreadful. She stretched out her head towards the dark window, where it seemed to her some stranger was looking in, and howled.’ And we howl too.

 

‘The Darling’ by Anton Chekhov (1899)

We’re given a rather unusual ‘love story’ here, and you might wonder at The Darling of the title, Olga Semyonovna: “…now a new sort of life had begun for her, which did not bear thinking about. In the evening Olga sat in the porch, and heard the band playing and the fireworks popping in the Tivoli, but now the sound stirred no response. She looked into the yard without interest, thought of nothing, wished for nothing, and afterwards, when night came on she went to bed and dreamed of her empty yard. She ate and drank as it were unwillingly. …And what was worst of all, she had no opinions of any sort. She saw the objects about here and understood what she saw, but could not form any opinion about them, and did not know what to talk about. And how awful it is not to have any opinions! One sees a bottle, for instance, or the rain, or a peasant driving in his cart, but what the bottle is for, or the rain, or the peasant, and what is the meaning of it, one can’t say, and could not even for a thousand roubles.” – what we have here is life, love, identity and freedom defamiliarised just enough, shifted just enough, rendered just strange enough, sufficiently unaccountable, to make it question our own conceptions of life, love, identity and freedom – adeptly done by Chekhov

 

‘The New Villa’ by Anton Chekhov (1899)

What I like about this is that it’s a moral tale where the moral / epiphany is thrown away, which is very much the moral – there is no moral, in the sense that we learn nothing, and we’ll learn nothing form this little tale either. “’We lived without a bridge…’ said Volodka gloomily. ‘We lived without a bridge, and did not ask for one… and we don’t want it…” Instead of shaking our heads at Volodoka, we shake our heads at ourselves.

 

‘On Official Duty’ by Anton Chekhov (1899)

The balance of irony and empathy is so often so right in a Chekhov story: “…how remote it all was from the life he desired for himself, and how alien it all was to him, how petty, how uninteresting. If this man had killed himself in Moscow or somewhere in the neighbourhood, and he had had to hold the inquest on him there, it would have been interesting, important, and perhaps he might even have been afraid to sleep in the next room to the corpse. Here, nearly a thousand miles from Moscow, all this was seen somehow in a different light; it was not life, they were not human beings, but something only existing ‘according to the regulation’, as Loshadin said; it would not leave the faintest trace in the memory, and would be forgotten as soon as he, Lyzhin, drove away from Syrnya. …To live, one must live in Moscow.” Is this right? No. Is this wrong? No.

 

‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ by Anton Chekhov (1899)

Style: If you’re to have deft and precise prose, sustain a particular note, jolt and/or haunt the reader, control your tone, if possible an understated tone, but whatever else be perfectly pitched, be touching and tender, or comic and grotesque, stray into dark comedy, or be merely wry, have power on top of pathos, richness if not a sublime purity of prose, though always keeping it ticking over – the tension – that’s the good stuff, the power we spoke of, what we mean by prose having a charge: being immediate, visceral or profound, but also having currents work beneath the surface; your unflagging control will…

…there’s not much point with this particular yardstick. Onto more yardy yard-sticks:

Utility: I’m not quite of the opinion that if a piece of writing has zero utility it has zero worth, but I also want to pretend that is kind of the case: does the piece of writing make us better in some way, improve the world, enhance our understanding of it, communicate some meaning in a better way, or just achieve something objective? Affect reality as opposed to merely reflecting it? Having a theme is closely tied up with utility in my book: this is an idea and this is how you should handle it: the idea is reshaped, reworked, reinvigorated, retooled or maybe weaponised.

Plausibility: even a fantasy has to be plausible. It may be a fictional world, a realistic setting, a social dynamic, or a psychology at the centre of the piece, but the reader must fully buy into it. If it’s not utterly convincing, it’s no good. And to be fair, most readers don’t need too much convincing.

Credibility: how is this different to plausible? Well, you gotta believe in the woman at the controls. If you’re looking for a “rare insight”, or any insight, a “moment of clarity”, or just a damn good point, then the writer / the writing must have credibility. Stories don’t stumble by accident upon profound wisdom. Art isn’t, whatever else, accidental. It takes two, but it mainly takes one. The judgement of the author is on display with each word, with everything that is included, as well as everything that’s left out: this is best shown through errors of judgement.

Depth: whether this is emotional richness or merely the richness of the fictional world described with sharpness and precision – can you have a shallow story? Can a story work on only one level? Does there not need to be layers of meaning? Ambiguity? Multiple possibilities / interpretations? From Kafka to Chekhov, from Joyce to Mansfield: all the masters of the form seem to err on the side of depth, steering clear of superficial and facile crap. Why?

Subtlety– sure fiction has to do stuff and the rigging, the pulleys and ropes, inevitably become visible – but take care! If you’re going to break the fourth wall, it’d be nice if it were intact in the first place, and the other three shouldn’t be creaking under the weight of their own unlikelihood. Don’t treat the reader like an idiot, nor like a genius. The reader shouldn’t feel manipulated, told to think or feel this or that, but they should enjoy being manipulated, enjoy having nowhere to turn but onwards into the prose. Poke fun at the process, make the process the story, but don’t, whatever else, be crass. Also, to linger long in the mind, a story can’t just be its punchline.

Engagement: if a piece is to carry us deep inside particular moments, if it’s to be at all thrilling, or even a little bit moving, let alone visceral or shocking, then we have to be hooked, one way or another. And there are so many ways of hooking us, god love us! It may not build to a stunning finale, but there needs to be some kind of narrative drive, a direction of sorts, even if it is backwards, or plummeting, even limping, into chaos.

Cogency / Structure / Coherence: as so many short stories fly in the face of narrative – one has to be careful in saying that a piece of writing has to have a strong narrative. You could say though a ‘certain coherence”: though the lack of coherence can also be the story’s coherence. But it should, at the very least, seem like a considered response to something. You need to be framing something, serving something up, not just spitting ink at a page or coughing up words. found poetry perhaps, but no one finds well-polished prose.

Affective / Empathy / Evocative: there’s a lot going on here; however, with stories than don’t lean heavily on character, they must, nonetheless, find other ways to hit us: “building atmosphere” is one such way. “Emotional impact,” is often assigned to good prose. Having a profound grasp of psychology is key to most stories – to be fair there isn’t much fiction without at least some element of characterization: a writer kind of needs to be an architect of human landscape as well as being a keen observer and understander of people. How else to have a strong emotional impact? It’s all well and good creating an atmosphere of powerful unease or building an atmosphere of foreboding; but there’s not much unease to be created by chucking an old bicycle into the murkiest of waters. Fiction without traditional characters nevertheless ropes the reader in emotionally: we’re along for the ride, and it’s invariably a distinctly human ride.

Novelty / Surprise / Fun: Is it witty? Does it make you smile? Is it fun? Well, if not fun it should at least be thought-provoking, challenging assumptions, wrong-footing the reader, pulling the rug from beneath them, or other such devilment. Though I can think of a lot of great short stories that are about as funny as cancer, they do have novelty. Just as novels should be novel, and expression shouldn’t be clichéd, then short stories should make you think: wtf! At least a little bit . This might well be the bit that resists reduction. Some unique angle on the human condition, the ineffable moment of clarity, or some epiphany or other. Just something.

Defamiliarisation: I think this term best exemplifies how fiction can be and should be utilitarian – but does it deserve its very own category? Yes. If you read a story and you don’t see the world a little differently afterwards, then really, what was the point? I guess “thought-provoking” comes under this. It’s “revelation”, but revelation that works. Like a good metaphor, which simply puts two things together in a new way but achieves so much, a short story should have something about it that makes us see ourselves, the world, other people, language, fiction itself, or anything at all, anew.