A novel doesn’t have to be as thick as Greek yogurt. These slim volumes are every bit as engaging and showy (if you want to drop some names) as their thicker relatives.
The longest one on the list is only around 50,000 words while the shortest is about 15,000. They go by many names but the commonality is that they’re shorter than a standard novel and longer that a standard short story. If you’re looking for a short novel to read in one sitting, there should be something here to satisfy you.
They are popular choices for high school students—short but still full of meaning.
Here they are, in order (to the best of my knowledge), from longest to shortest.
Novellas and Novelettes
The Great Gatsby | F. Scott Fitzgerald (50,000 words)
“It [Gatsby’s smile] understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”
Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby has become one of the most revered American novels. Through the narrator, Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s secrets are revealed: who he is, where he got his money, and his purpose in throwing lavish parties.
This novel of the futility of materialism and the shallowness of the wealthy rewards careful reading. There is great economy in the writing; every paragraph is telling, and there are many illuminating details to ponder.
The Awakening | Kate Chopin (49,750 words)
While on vacation with her husband, Leonce, Edna spends time with her friend Adele, who is open and free. Edna is liberated by her influence. She starts spending time with Robert, and this further changes her attitude, which affects how she lives when she returns home to New Orleans.
Slaughterhouse-Five | Kurt Vonnegut (49,500 words)
“I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on earth is there any talk of free will.”
This novel, published in 1969, follows the experiences of a WWII soldier who has come “unstuck in time.”
This science fiction novel deals with free will and the devastation of war. It is non-linear and always interesting.
“So it goes.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Alexandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (47,500 words)
Ivan is a political prisoner in a Siberian work camp. His days are all about survival: doing minimal work, hiding tools, getting enough food, and currying favor with the right people.
Fahrenheit 451 | Ray Bradbury (46,000 words)
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.”
This dystopian novel, published in 1953, follows Guy Montag, a fireman who burns down houses that contain books.
It is perhaps the best known anti-censorship novel. Strangely, Fahrenheit 451 was itself modified by its publisher (later reversed at Bradbury’s insistence) and has been targeted for a ban at least once.
Besides censorship, it also concerns the quest for knowledge, complete with several thought-provoking paradoxical statements.
Heart of Darkness | Joseph Conrad (39,250 words)
Marlow is a riverboat captain working for a company that trades in the Congo. On his journey to meet with Kurtz, a chief in the company’s Inner Station, he finds the company’s practices are inefficient and brutal. Kurtz is a successful ivory dealer, and feelings about him are mixed.
Ethan Frome | Edith Wharton (35,000 words)
“They seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods.”
This novel, published in 1911, is the tale of its namesake, a man who was seriously injured in an accident 24 years earlier. The narrator, a visitor in Ethan’s rural New England town, had pieced together Ethan’s history, which included a growing attraction to his wife’s cousin.
It’s a stark exemplification of the constraints of society and morality, and the consequences of living passively.
The climactic scene is startling and the denouement, discomposing.
Candide | Voltaire (34,500 words)
“…those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.”
Published in 1759, this is a philosophical satire that follows the hardships of Candide. He is torn between the opposing philosophies of Pangloss and Martin: blind optimism and extreme pessimism.
The characters’ exaggerated sufferings and resolve to stick to their core beliefs provide many amusing moments.
Among other things, Candide is a criticism of certain philosophies, human nature, religious authority and the legal system.
The Time Machine | H. G. Wells (32,500 words)
At a dinner, a man claims to be nearing completion on a time machine, which he will use to take a trip. He demonstrates with a model of the machine, pulling a lever on it and making it disappear. Next week, he tells a story of time travel to his guests.
The Stranger | Albert Camus (31,000 words)
“There is not love of life without despair about life.”
Published in 1942, The Stranger is one of the best known French novels. It is a philosophical story of a man who lives a meaningless life and then must confront his mortality.
It is written in an easy to read style of simple sentences and basic vocabulary with little poetic phrasing.
The merits of the main character and his status as an anti-hero are still debated today.
Bunner Sisters | Edith Wharton (30,500 words)
Two middle-aged sisters run a small shop and live modestly. They start keeping company with a local clock seller, which changes their usual routine.
Billy Budd | Herman Melville (30,250 words)
Billy is pressed into service aboard the HMS Bellipotent. He is popular with the crew, except for the Master-at-arms, John Claggart. His dislike of Billy escalates.
Animal Farm | George Orwell (30,000 words)
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
This novel, first published in 1945, is an allegory of the events leading to the Russian revolution of 1917 and the Stalin years of the Soviet Union. No knowledge of either of those historical periods is a prerequisite, though, for reading this clever fairy tale. Even if you don’t know, and don’t care to know, anything about Russia or Stalin, Animal Farm can be enjoyed on its own as a tale of corruption, injustice, and lofty ideals gone wrong.
The animals of Manor Farm get tired of the inept management of Mr. Jones. They decide to take over the farm and expel Jones.
The pigs, the smartest animals on the farm, develop the doctrine of “Animalism.” Of particular interest are the seven commandments of “Animalism”, which eventually become too restrictive for the leaders of the farm and have to be revised accordingly.
Of Mice and Men | John Steinbeck (29,000 words)
“Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.”
Published in 1937, this novel tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two transient farm hands in California during the Great Depression. It opens with them en route to a new job after abruptly leaving their last farm due to a misunderstanding over something Lennie did.
Lennie, a large and strong mentally handicapped man, loves stroking soft things and dreams of living “off the fatta the lan’”. George is a small man and a quick thinker who takes comfort in Lennie’s company and looks out for him, and also dreams of having his own farm.
This is a short, powerful story of loneliness, unfulfilled desires, and oppression with a dramatic conclusion.
The Old Man and the Sea | Ernest Hemingway (27,000 words)
An old fisherman, Santiago, has gone eighty-four days in a row without a catch. His assistant, Manolin, had to leave him after forty days. He still helps Santiago carry his gear and they talk every day. He is sure his unlucky streak is going to end soon.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland | Lewis Carroll (27,000 words)
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
This children’s novel, published in 1865, has never been out of print. Alice goes down the rabbit hole and meets an array of eccentric, opinionated, and baffling characters.
Although the plot is for children, there’s a lot in Alice for the adult reader such as puns, clever turns of phrase, and logical absurdities.
The Pearl | John Steinbeck (26,000 words)
Kino is a poor Mexican pearl diver. Kino’s baby gets stung by a scorpion but he doesn’t have enough money to pay the doctor. He goes diving and finds the “pearl of the world” – the largest pearl he has ever seen. It seems like a great blessing but it brings out the worst in everyone.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich | Leo Tolstoy (22,500 words)
Ivan Ilyich lives simply, focusing on making advancement at work as he’s not eager to be around his family. One day while hanging curtains, he falls and hurts his side. When he gets it checked out, the doctor has bad news.
A Boring Story | Anton Chekhov (22,250 words)
Nikolai Stepanovich is an aged, renowned medical professor. Despite his success, he’s unsatisfied; his heath is poor, he’s annoyed with his family, and sick of the conversation of his associates.
The Metamorphosis | Franz Kafka (22,000 words)
“Hanging on the wall just opposite was a photograph of Gregor from his army days, which showed him as a lieutenant, with his hand on his sword and a carefree smile, inviting respect for his bearing and his uniform.”
This novel, published in 1915, follows Gregor Samsa as he tries to live as a verminous bug.
It deals with isolation, alienation, the absurdities in life, and the conflict that results when the body isn’t an even match for the mind.
Ward No. 6 | Anton Chekhov (21,750 words)
Ward no. 6 is a lunatic asylum with five inmates, including Gromov, a university-educated man who went mad with paranoia. The head doctor, Rabin, used to take care of his patients, but now neglects his duties, using philosophy to rationalize his decision. Rabin wants intelligent conversation, but is disappointed by his acquaintances. He eventually starts conversing with Gromov.
Daisy Miller | Henry James (21,700 words)
Frederick Winterbourne is a twenty-seven-year-old American who has lived in Geneva for years. While having breakfast at his hotel, he meets Daisy Miller, a seventeen-year-old American tourist. She is open and free like an American, while Frederick is formal like a European. He is attracted to her even though their social circles are different.
The Diary of a Superfluous Man | Ivan Turgenev (21,200 words)
A man who only has a short time to live records some important events in his life. He touches briefly on his childhood and youth. Thru business he comes in contact with Ozhogin, and falls in love with his daughter, Elizaveta. He feels his life has been superfluous, and claims he will convince the reader of it.
Anthem | Ayn Rand (19,000 words)
Equality 7-2521 writes from a tunnel by candlelight about his life. Writing private thoughts is a sin. Only the group is valued in his society. He is cursed because he has abilities superior to his fellow humans.
The Beast in the Jungle | Henry James (18,750 words)
John Marcher meets up with May Bartram, a woman he had met on vacation ten years prior. They share a bond because she is the only person to whom he has ever confided his secret – he’s convinced that he’s destined to experience a monumental but disastrous event. They live close to each other and become good friends.
The Displaced Person | Flannery O’Connor (17,300 words)
A Polish refugee and his family arrive at Mrs. McIntyre’s farm to work for her. The man, Mr. Guizac, proves to be an industrious and efficient worker. The Shortleys, a couple who also work on the farm, become concerned about their position. Mrs. McIntyre rules over her little domain, managing her affairs to get the most profit.
The Secret Sharer | Joseph Conrad (16,750 words)
The new captain of a ship is taking the night watch when he sees a man swimming to the side of the ship. The man comes aboard. The captain learns the man was under arrest on his own ship and escaped. The captain has to decide what to do with him.
In The Ravine | Anton Chekhov (16,500 words)
Grigori runs a grocery store in Ukleevo, a polluted, nondescript village. His daughter-in-law helps him with his business. He is indifferent to the poor, but his wife, Varvara, is very generous. His oldest son, Anisim, is coming to the village. He is unmarried, so the family thinks it’s time he found a wife.
The Dead | James Joyce (15,500 words)
Gabriel Conroy and his wife attend his aunt’s annual dinner and dance along with other family and friends.
Life in the Iron Mills | Rebecca Harding Davis (15,000 words)
Hugh lives in poverty and works at a foundry. His cousin, Deborah, works long hours at a cotton mill. Despite doing physical, demanding, and non-creative work, Hugh has an artist’s sensibility, sculpting in his free time. One evening, an opportunity arises for Deborah to better their situation.