Short Fiction: A Study of Genre

Students read multiple genres of fiction, including the absurdist The Metamorphosis and the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, with the aim of exploring the question: "What does it mean to be human?"

Unit Summary

This unit will focus on one thematic question—What does it mean to be human?—as it is explored in different genres of fiction. Students will be asked to analyze the literature not just for the author’s message about humanity, but also for his or her use of a particular genre to develop that message.

Students will begin by reading the modernist/absurdist novella The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka, as well as viewing clips of the film version of the story. The Metamorphosis is considered by critics to be one of the most powerful works of modernist/absurdist twentieth-century literature. Kafka creates a horrific situation in which a young man, Gregor Samsa, wakes from his normal daily drudgery to discover that he has transformed into a “vermin.” Increasing the horror for the reader is Kafka’s juxtaposition of these supernatural events with a matter-of-fact narration focused on the minutia of daily life. In exploring Gregor and his family members’ reactions to his transformation, Kafka explores the futility of the human condition and the impact of isolation on human beings.

Following Kafka’s twentieth-century work, students will turn their attention to the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. As students follow Oedipus on his journey to avoid his fate, they will see how his fatal flaw leads to his tragic downfall. Students will analyze Sophocles’s use of dramatic irony, characterization, diction, and the Greek chorus to develop his message.

“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses,” a short work of realistic fiction by Bessie Head, an acclaimed author from both Botswana and South Africa, is next up in the unit. Students will explore Head’s use of a realistic setting and plausible characters to investigate human decency and the effects of oppression on the humanity of both oppressor and oppressed.

Finally, students will read a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, the lauded Colombian writer known for the development of the magical realism genre. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” Márquez blends realistic elements of setting and character interspersed with bursts of fantasy such as a winged man, a spider woman, and a home invasion by a horde of crabs. Through describing the villagers’ responses to the winged man, Márquez explores the cruelty and compassion of humanity—How do we respond to those who are weak or different? And what does that reaction reveal about us as members of the human family?

After reading and addressing each author’s use of his or her particular genre to address the question of humanity, students will debate their opinions and, finally, express in writing their thoughts about this thematic question. Rather than taking a final unit exam, students will write a polished essay that includes details from each work of fiction. This is one of the only points this year when class time will be built in for students to plan, draft, and complete a piece of process writing. This is an excellent opportunity for teachers to provide feedback to students on both their literary analysis and their writing skills.

Texts and Materials

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Core Materials

Supporting Materials

See Text Selection Rationale


This assessment accompanies Unit 4 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Intellectual Prep


  1. Read and annotate each short story with the key thematic questions in mind. Additionally, note how the author makes use of the particular characteristics of his or her genre to address the overarching question of what it means to be human.
  2. Consider the key thematic question and all of the possible subquestions that students might pose and/or need to wrestle with:
    1. What does it really mean to be human? What separates us from other animals? What does it mean to act with humanity? Which characters show the most humanity? The least? What is shocking, distressing, confusing, and or moving in each story? Why? What does this tell us about the struggles of being human?
  3. Write a mastery response to the essay prompt.
  4. Create classroom visuals to aid in student comprehension and analysis. Recommended visuals: the essential question for the unit along with a place to post key ideas from each text, the genre of each text as well as major characteristics of that genre, character lists for each story, and, for Oedipus the King, a list of Greek gods and goddesses mentioned in the play.

Essential Questions


  • What does it mean to be human? 
  • How do authors make use of genre to develop their themes and messages?

Writing Focus Areas


After reading and addressing each author’s use of his or her particular genre to address the question of humanity, students will debate their opinions and finally express in writing their response to this thematic question: What does it mean to be human? The focus of this essay is on students sharing their own answer to this question while making references to each literary work they have read and how that author’s treatment of the topic developed their thinking. This essay will be different than those done in previous units, as students will go through the entire writing process, including writing multiple drafts, ultimately developing a typed, polished final essay of publishable quality.

Spiraling Literary Analysis Writing Focus Area

  • Uses genre-specific vocabulary
  • Builds a compelling argument using evidence from each text
  • Includes a clear and original thesis statement that addresses the key question of the unit



Literary Terms

genre, realistic fiction, absurdism, modernism, magical realism, Greek tragedy, theme, tone, mood, characterization, character motivation, author’s style, diction, juxtaposition, dramatic irony, hamartia, hubris, chorus

Roots and Affixes

The Metamorphosis: meta (title), morph (title), im- (immobile)
“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”: con- (concealment)
Oedipus the King: lux- (luxuriates)
 “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”:  mag- (magnanimous)


The Metamorphosis: metamorphosis (title), vermin (7), intercede (13), timorous (20), dissuade (28 & 38), revulsion (32), endearment (33), immobile (34 & 36), imploring (34), repugnant (39)
“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”: fanciful (686), concealment (686), perpetrated (687), ruefully (687), acute (687), conviction (689)
Oedipus the King: suppliants (prologue), vengeance (line 36), luxuriates (line 37), rites (line 112), avenger (line 154), denounce (line 257), scourge (line 474), reverberate (line 480), insufferable (line 490), revelation (516), clairvoyant (line 678), sullen (line 746), foreboding (line 848), spurned (line 869), defilement (line 1009), mortified (line 1187), defile (line 1494)
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”: stupor (105), magnanimous (106), reverence (106), impertinence (107), antiquarian (107), cataclysm (109), frivolity (109), deigned (110), ungainly (112)

Idioms and Cultural References

The Metamorphosis: sacked (12), conservatory (23), provincial (34)
“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”: warder (686), span (686), political prisoner (686), kaffir (687), Baas (687 & 688), knobkerrie (687) 
Oedipus the King: prophecy (throughout), oracle (line 83), Apollo (line 83), laurel wreath (line 95)
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”: catechism (107), papal (108), Rome (109), Aramaic (109), providential (109)

Content Knowledge and Connections


Students will read four short works, all of which were written by authors who lived through times of major social upheaval: Kafka writes in the aftermath of World War I, Sophocles during the collapse of Athens following the Peloponnesian wars, Head during apartheid in South Africa, and Gárcia Márquez by political upheaval in his native Colombia. While this unit does not delve deeply into this historical background, the teacher could choose to extend the unit by adding in resources about the historical setting of each work. Alternatively, connecting to knowledge students might already have from their history classes is also an option.

Previous Fishtank ELA Connections

Future Fishtank ELA Connections

Lesson Map


  • The Metamorphosis pp. 7 – 11

  • “Absurdist Fiction”

  • “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Define “absurdism” and identify and analyze elements of the absurd in the text.

Identify the author’s tone in the opening pages.


  • The Metamorphosis pp. 11 – 18

  • “Franz Kafka”

Analyze how Kafka develops the conflict between Gregor and the other characters.


  • The Metamorphosis pp. 19 – 31

Analyze the impact of Gregor’s transformation on himself and his family members.


  • The Metamorphosis pp. 32 – 44

Consider how the author uses the characterization of Gregor and his family to reveal theme.


  • The Metamorphosis

  • “The Metamorphosis”

Analyze how the director of the film interprets Kafka’s novella.

Explain verbally and in writing how Kafka uses the elements of absurdism to develop his message about humanity.


  • “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” pp. 686 – 689

Analyze the impact of the author’s use of realistic fiction to address the same thematic question addressed by Kafka in The Metamorphosis.


  • Oedipus Rex pp. 3 – 8 — End at "Oedipus retires"

  • “Oedipus”

Analyze the impact of the playwright’s use of dramatic irony in the opening scene of the play.


  • Oedipus Rex pp. 8 – 19

Analyze Sophocles’s use of techniques common to his genre to develop Oedipus as a character.


  • Oedipus Rex pp. 19 – 35

Analyze how Sophocles uses dramatic irony in this section of the play.

Begin to define “hamartia” and identify how Oedipus is contributing to his own tragic ending.


  • Oedipus Rex pp. 35 – 56

Analyze how Sophocles develops his message about fate and humanity in the final portion of the play.


2 days


  • Oedipus Rex — Whole play

Analyze Sophocles’s message about humanity as he develops it in Oedipus the King.


  • “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” pp. 105 – 112

Analyze the author’s use of the character of the old man to develop the theme of humanity.


  • “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” pp. 105 – 112

Reread the story, analyzing it as a satire critiquing both Catholicism and human nature.


3 days


Brainstorm, draft, revise, and finalize an original literary analysis essay.



Present analysis of the stories and theme of humanity to a small group of peers.

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.11-12.4 — Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 11—12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.11-12.1 — Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • RI.11-12.2 — Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RI.11-12.3 — Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.11-12.1 — Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • RL.11-12.2 — Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.11-12.3 — Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

  • RL.11-12.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

  • RL.11-12.5 — Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

  • RL.11-12.6 — Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

  • RL.11-12.7 — Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.11-12.1 — Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11—12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

  • SL.11-12.3 — Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

  • SL.11-12.4 — Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.

Writing Standards
  • W.11-12.1 — Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

  • W.11-12.4 — Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

  • W.11-12.5 — Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.