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?"
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.
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Book: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Classix Press Edition, 2009)
Short Story: “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” by Bessie Head (from The Bedford Introduction to Literature)
Play: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (Dover Publications, Inc., 2006) (from The Theban Plays)
Short Story: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Gárcia Márquez (from Leaf Storm and Other Stories)
Video: “The Metamorphosis - Scenes with English Subtitles” (Сайт Евгения Миронова, 2012)
Article: “Oedipus” (Greekmythology.com)
Article: “Franz Kafka” (Biography.com)
Article: “Absurdist Fiction” (Wikipedia)
Article: “The Myth of Sisyphus” (Wikipedia)
This assessment accompanies Unit 4 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.
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.
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
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)
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)
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.
The Metamorphosis pp. 7 – 11
“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
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.
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"
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.
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.