Short Stories About Romance Gone Awry

Rotten Relationships and Lousy Love in Literature

Broken heart.
Image courtesy of Dennis Skley.

Failed relationships and rotten romance seem to provide endless fodder for short story writers. From love affairs that never lift off the ground to long-term marriages that slowly crumble, the following list includes stories from every stage of romantic dissolution. For readers who've experienced their share of lost love, these stories may provide a sense of camaraderie … or at least comic relief.

  • 'Good Country People' by Flannery O'Connor. Hulga fancies herself an intellectual and a skeptic, but it turns out she's susceptible to the charms of a silver-tongued Bible salesman. Though she's drawn to him, she's also convinced he's nothing but a country simpleton, so she's dumbfounded when she learns what he was really after.
  • 'How to Talk to a Hunter' by Pam Houston. Her friends tried to warn her not to date a man whose house is bedecked with animal skins, but did she listen? He speaks in clichés from country songs; he lies about the messages on his answering machine. Houston tells the story of a woman who knows she's being toyed with but can't walk away.
  • 'The New Year' by Pamela Painter. It's true that the narrator never should have cheated on Fiona, so we can't blame her for kicking him out. Still, the story is told from his point of view, not Fiona's, and he's such a ham it's hard for us not to forgive him, even if Fiona won't.
  • 'Hills Like White Elephants' by Ernest Hemingway. This classic story takes place at a hot, dusty train station in Spain, where two characters order drinks and argue about an abortion without ever uttering the word. It is clear that whether the woman gets an abortion or not, their relationship is already over.
  • 'Popular Mechanics' by Raymond Carver. The man and woman in Carver's story are so consumed with enmity for each other that they're willing to sacrifice absolutely anything to triumph over the other person. People like this were probably never cut out to be parents; too bad they have a baby.
  • 'Runaway' by Alice Munro. Clara knows that her husband, Clark, is domineering and dangerous. Why can't she admit to herself that he's responsible for the disappearance of her beloved goat, Flora? More importantly, why, when Sylvia offers Clara an easy chance to escape, does she choose to return to Clark instead?
  • 'The First Sense' by Nadine Gordimer. A wife learns of her husband's infidelity -- and the eventual end of the affair -- through subtle changes in the way he plays his cello. If the affair indicates the weakness of their marriage, their ability to communicate without saying a single word is perhaps, ironically, a testament to its strength.
  • 'Wants' by Grace Paley. A woman and her ex-husband discuss their different perspectives on their marriage and its collapse. He accuses her of never wanting anything. She realizes later that the many things she wants are not material goods, but rather character traits and relationships.
  • 'The Story of an Hour' by Kate Chopin. For the brief time that Louise Mallard believes her husband has died, she is elated with thoughts of her new-found freedom. Is she a rotten wife for being happy he's gone? Is he a rotten husband for making her so glad to be rid of him? Or is marriage a stifling institution no matter who's involved?

With the exception of fairy tales, it seems that true love rarely makes its way into literature. It's the imperfect romances that seem to garner literary attention, perhaps because those are the relationships we most need to understand.