Short stories are an ideal literary form with which to study cause and effect in human terms. They demonstrate how a single event, a moment of weakness or strength, can shift an entire narrative and have irreversible effects on the characters. Such stories reveal the unpredictability of human behavior and the danger of unintended consequences.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Set during a safari hunt in Africa, Ernest Hemingway’s provocative story probes the power struggles between husband and wife in a failing marriage. The pivotal moment in the story comes during a Cape buffalo hunt when the protagonist, Francis Macomber, converts his cowardice into courage and faces death without fear. Because of this moment of strength, his wife, Margot, realizes she has lost her grip over him, causing her to take drastic measures. The story reveals how reclaimed assertiveness can actually undermine relationships and lead to greater instability.
Save the Reaper
Set in rural Canada, Alice Munro’s bittersweet story examines a lonely grandmother who takes her grandkids on an ill-fated country drive. Trying to recapture fragments of her childhood, and grappling with an inexplicable estrangement from her own daughter, the protagonist, Eve, follows an old truck to a rundown farm as part of a game she’s playing with her grandkids. In a rash decision, however, dismissing the fear of her grandkids, she ends up taking them into what is not a farmhouse at all, but rather a flophouse full of criminals. The narrative demonstrates the danger of trying to relive the past: how something as seemingly trivial and harmless as a nostalgic game can lead to peril.
Car Crash While Hitchhiking
Denis Johnson’s hallucinatory story follows a young, drug-addled hitchhiker who foresees a terrible car crash but does nothing to stop it. The interlinked causes of the tragedy are catalogued in the first paragraph of the story: “A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping. A Cherokee filled with bourbon. A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student. And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri.” In a fatalistic sense, this web of causality is unalterable, but readers are still dragged through the devastating effects of the crash.
Michael C. Keith’s surreal short story also lays out the cause of events in the first paragraph: “It was a momentary lapse in judgment -- a split second impulse with grave consequences -- that impelled Connor Hickman to breathe his germs into his wife’s open mouth.” The protagonist, sick himself, explains that he did this to avoid visiting his in-laws. But the sickness soon lands both him and his wife in the hospital, where the infection begins manifesting itself in strange, otherworldly ways. Thus, his initial inconsiderate act precipitates a stunning shift in destiny, demonstrating how no human act is inconsequential.
- The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber; Ernest Hemingway
- The Best American Short Stories 1999; ed. Amy Tan
- Car Crash While Hitchhiking; Denis Johnson
- The Blue Hour Magazine: Infected by Michael C. KeithKeith
- Photo Credit Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing/Getty Images
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