Kafka’s ‘Eleven Sons’: A Story?

The categorization of a literary work isn’t always simple and easy. Many works can be read one way AND another and may or may not neatly fit in a single genre or even style (particularly in case of what they call “experimental works”). But there are works that seem to have simply been miscategorized, and you’ll probably be surprised to see some writings of literary giants miscategorized. Here I’ll talk about Franz Kafka.

Happening to read “Eleven Sons” from the book The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, I couldn’t help notice how it was placed in the final section of the book under ‘The Shorter Stories’—the reason being that the five-page piece did not read as a story in the first place.

In “Eleven Sons” Kafka starts with a single, short line: “I HAVE eleven sons.” (p 419) Then he goes to on list each one briefly by his personality. No character is given a name and readers just see the character traits of each son in a single paragraph. At the end of all descriptions, the author finishes the piece with a single line: “These are my eleven sons.” (p 424)

Now the eleven nameless characters of sons can be read as a figurative representation of the general human personalities or common character traits. But whatever way you interpret it, the piece doesn’t get a story structure. Essentially, a story has to have any kind of event or a series of related events. That means something happens in a story. If it is something that hasn’t happened in real life or is mainly made up in the author’s mind, it qualifies as Fiction; and in case it is a real life event/series of events, it can be categorized variedly as Creative Nonfiction or Personal Essay, memoir etc.

“Eleven Sons” by Kafka has no event or anything happening in it. Structurally it would be not correct to classify it as a story, whether ‘short’ or ‘shorter’. In my opinion, it should be categorized as Vignettes that could be read and interpreted in relation to other works of the author. In context of Kafka’s biography—knowing he had no children—it’ll make sense to call it fiction but not a story. Lists of short character descriptions (or places, things etc.) can be called vignettes, which is where I’ll say this piece belongs.

As they say, these are my two cents on an outstanding author’s “Eleven Sons”.

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