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 4

11th Grade

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 minutiae 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


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

Key Knowledge

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 sample 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.

Future Fishtank ELA Connections

Lesson Map

Common Core Standards

Core Standards

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Unit 3

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Unit 5

Dreaming in Cuban

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