The meaning of life through short stories.
June 3, 2012 9:53 AM   Subscribe

What short stories have further defined your conceptual understanding of "the meaning of life?"

I recently read Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" and was blown away.

As an atheist, I found myself extremely attracted to the story's underlying notion of universal "indifference" -- that our lives occupy a minute space on the linear process that it entropy, and that in the end, the only thing that is certain is that "everything" will cease to exist. (This is my reading of the story; I understand that it may or may not be yours.)

Effectively, I feel that reading Asimov has helped me resolve some broader, personal existential issues -- and that I'm a more "grounded" person because of it.

So, MeFi, I'd like to know what short stories have helped you form your own understanding of the “meaning of life/existence.”

Two side notes: First, by “short stories,” I mean stories that can easily be read in one sitting. Second, I’d prefer to hear about stories that pose questions, rather than those that dictate answers (i.e. no biblical stories that are fundamentally predicated on a belief in God).
posted by lobbyist to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like Alastair Reynolds' "Understanding Space and Time" (which can be found in the collection Zima Blue and perhaps elsewhere) might fit the bill here.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:08 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is a graphic novel, so depending on your reading habits, it can be read ib one sitting: JMS' Midnight Nation. It has religious undertones, but they aren't plain biblical.

A short story that had a very strong impact for me is Wayne Allen Sallee's "For you, the living".
posted by MinusCelsius at 10:15 AM on June 3, 2012

I realize you're asking for short story recommendations, but I feel I really should mention Ken Grimwood's Replay, a fairly short novel about a man who unwillingly lives his life again and again with all his memories intact. It poignantly raises existential questions about human agency and purpose, and asks what, exactly, we should be living for.
posted by Bromius at 11:03 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Bierce. All short stories by Borges.
posted by jasper411 at 11:09 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

A couple that have stayed with me for at least a couple of decades, the first made me think about value, values and integrity. What being true to yourself meant.

Unaccompanied Sonata by Orson Scott Card
(in a similar vein would be Harrison Bergeron)

and the second, just blew me away (existentially I guess, in my teens, that we are ultimately alone)

Theodore Sturgeon's A saucer of loneliness
posted by infini at 11:16 AM on June 3, 2012

Came to say Borges, almost any short story.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:28 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Delmore Schwarz's collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. The title story in that collection is particularly profound and moving, and widely acknowledged to be a masterpiece of the form.

Nabokov excelled in short stories as well as novels. Your question makes me think you might be especially interested in "Cloud, Castle, Lake", "That in Aleppo Once...", and the exquisite "Signs and Symbols".
posted by trip and a half at 11:34 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Very, very short: Eulogy to a Shoelace, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
posted by Corvid at 11:58 AM on June 3, 2012

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin.
posted by woodvine at 11:59 AM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" changed something in me, though I can't say I know just what.
posted by Infinity_8 at 12:12 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hinterlands by William Gibson. Did something for me; YMMV.
posted by labberdasher at 12:22 PM on June 3, 2012

Stephen Crane's The Open Boat.
posted by foursentences at 12:35 PM on June 3, 2012

Warm by Robert Sheckley.
posted by Cwell at 12:43 PM on June 3, 2012

Any of the stories in Joyce's Dubliners.
posted by painquale at 12:54 PM on June 3, 2012

Also, stories of Paul Bowles that involve cultures clashing. "A Distant Episode" is very good.
posted by painquale at 1:01 PM on June 3, 2012

A few years ago I read straight through all the short stories in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and The Story and its Writer which I had kept from college many years earlier (I think I have the 4th and 3rd editions) as well as two other anthologies. Almost everything was at least interesting and worth reading and quite a few were moving, either comforting or challenging me in some fundamental way. Probably a few won't work for you (a few didn't work for me) but I still recommend the experience. Find an anthology of "great" or "classic" short fiction and read it through, removing your expectations and allowing each story to tell itself.

Some of the stories that I still reread and think about:
  • A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert has a lot of religious imagery, but doesn't require religion (I think it kind of discourages it actually).
  • The Dead by James Joyce which I reread every year just because.
  • Sorrow-Acre by Isak Dinesen is a tough one, but I've read it several times because of that.
Tragic stories of young men doing foolish things are the cure to the power fantasies all around us and always make me think about life and chance.
  • Paul's Case by Willa Cather
  • Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison
  • The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich
  • The Man Who Was Almost A Man by Richard Wright
Complementary to the above is The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and counter to all is Youth by Joseph Conrad.

For the purposes you describe, I think you may wish to skip the following, but they're worth reading for other reasons. They share themes with the other stories I've mentioned.
  • The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
  • Gimpel the Fool by Issac Bashevis Singer
  • Pretty much anything by Flannery O'Connor.

posted by wobh at 1:02 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Got in early enough to suggest pretty much everything by Ted Chiang, especially "Understand" and "Exhalation."
posted by gerryblog at 1:11 PM on June 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is non-fiction and perhaps completely inappropriate, but nonetheless: Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. He did write some short stories, but I haven't read them.
posted by goethean at 1:16 PM on June 3, 2012

"Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death," by James Tiptree, Jr.

Huge second to "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang.

Also, "Friction," by Will McIntosh.
posted by po at 4:02 PM on June 3, 2012

The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James
posted by CincyBlues at 4:03 PM on June 3, 2012

Dr. Alexander Papaderos' response to 'What is the meaning of life?', as told in Robert Fulghum's book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:11 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pretty much anything by Andre Dubus.
posted by coldhotel at 6:39 PM on June 3, 2012

Nthing Ted Chiang.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:59 PM on June 3, 2012

Although it's a collection of fictional autiobiograpical poems rather than a short story, I'd recommend
Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.
posted by burden at 9:34 PM on June 3, 2012

"To Build a Fire" by Jack London - made me consider my own internal suffering in light of the protagonist's fight against nature
"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin - really, the best description of sibling relationships I've ever read.
posted by nigeline at 2:11 AM on June 4, 2012

John Updike, Brother Grasshopper
Sean O'Faolain, One Night In Turin
posted by londongeezer at 5:42 AM on June 4, 2012

Tuck Everlasting came along right when I was starting to ponder immortality and the effects.
posted by SlyBevel at 5:36 PM on June 4, 2012

I know exactly how you feel... The Last Question and The Last Answer blew that world right open for me in high school. A story that had a similar effect on me, regarding the nature of sanity, might be Ward No. 6, by Chekhov. I'll also second the above mentions of Ted Chiang (he's not so prolific, so I must say: please read everything), and of course Kafka Metamorphosis. Oh shit! And the book, Dubliners, by James Joyce is up there. It's a collection of short stories, most under 10 pages, which, taken together, present a pretty staggering view of life.
posted by Buckt at 9:34 PM on June 17, 2012

Oh! I just realized that the Chekhov story I was thinking of is actually The Black Monk. I recall enjoying Ward No. 6 when I read it (which is why the name came to mind), but The Black Monk was definitely the story I had in mind.
posted by Buckt at 9:40 PM on June 17, 2012

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