2023/02/06 - 04:53

(SP): The Metamorphosis: A Strange, Strange Book

By Matthew D -- 11/99

The metamorphosis very possibly was written by Kafka as an outlet for his feelings of isolation and helplessness. In it, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find himself spontaneously "transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." The story continues from there in a most realistic fashion: his family rejects him, and he stays cooped up in his room until he dies. Although interpretations of the story differ, my opinion is that Kafka wrote this story as a protestation, whether consciously or unconsciously, of his own inner needs not being met. Franz Kafka suffered from severe mental disorientation. This man suffered severe tragedies as a child: as the first child of Hermann and Julie Kafka, he lived to see two brothers born and die before he was six years old. Although they were eventually replaced by three new sisters, Kafka began his life with tragedies which most people do not experience until they are much older. Kafka lacked parental guidance, as he and his sisters were brought up mostly by governess. He was a Jew, and lived in Czechoslovakia, but he went to German schools. Therefore Kafka masked himself twice, at the bidding of his father. His father had made himself into a successful businessman, and expected Kafka to do the same. Most of Kafka’s stories contain or center around an over-domineering, almost frightening father figure. Kafka obeyed his father. He remembered his high school education as being meaningless and dull, but, out of obedience to his father, he completed it, and passed with flying colors. This switching to a less offending option in order to offend no one characterizes Kafka very well. He possessed a wonderful mind but rarely, if ever, directly expressed himself. Instead, he wrote a story of a man who, trapped in circumstances beyond his control, tries his best to conform to people’s expectations, particularly those of his father, but in the end finds this conformity impossible. Franz Kafka, in his novella The Metamorphosis, explores the concept of total mental isolation.

Kafka achieves a very proper, yet sardonic tone by employing a variety of literary devices. Again, Kafka does not bare his soul to an unfeeling world, but does manage to hide his real opinions in the structure of the story. The Metamorphosis comprises a simple analogy between a man, possibly Kafka, trying with all his might to be what his family and society expect him to be but unable to because of his inescapable mental isolation, and a well-meaning, misunderstood cockroach. Suprisingly, however, the actual word "cockroach" is never used. Most of the time the family mentions Gregor by name, as if refusing to accept the presence of any difference in him, or perhaps refusing to accept the "real" Gregor. The fact that "cockroach" is never actually employed leads the reader to wonder if the word is "taboo," and if the author is trying to say through this euphemism that Gregor himself won’t acknowledge that he’s different. If Gregor won’t acknowledge that he has become a cockroach, and if being a cockroach is symbolic of Kafka’s own view of himself, then the reader cannot help but wonder if Kafka is not mentally ill to some degree.

Kafka’s syntax accentuates the complete non-bombasticism of the work, while at the same time providing a stark background for the very disturbing action. Kafka’s efficient style of writing allows for no loose or periodic sentences, nor does he waste time on loquacious descriptions. However, despite this almost stilted style, Kafka’s talent cannot help but shine through the chinks of the unmoving wall of formality which he erected for himself. The reader knows, for example, that Gregor is a cockroach, despite the fact that Kafka never used the actual word. "He lay on his hard armorlike back... (and) saw his vaulted brown belly divided into sections by stiff arches." Use of this sort of imagery is very limited, but, interestingly, Kafka spends a disproportionate amount of space describing his father as a demanding, almost military figure: "...from under the bushy eyebrows his alert black eyes flashed penetratingly; his previously disheveled white hair was combed flat, exactingly parted and gleaming." Incidentally, his father only becomes this alarming after the metamorphosis; perhaps Kafka implies that such men can only assume their strength when they have someone weak to bully.

Kafka uses atmosphere to further emphasize the sardonic, coolly intellectual tone. The cage-like atmosphere stresses the action, like a drama presented on a blank stage. Almost the entire narrative takes place inside the four walls of Gregor’s bedroom, with a window overlooking a nondescript street providing the only relief from the severe simplicity of the room. As the story progresses Gregor loses his ability to see even out of that.

Kafka ends each chapter with Gregor escaping from his prison-like room into the freedom and love of the living room, but being quickly and immediately driven back by his family. The third time he comes out of his bedroom he concludes that he is not worthy to stay in there, and of his own accord turns around and re-enters his cell. By a strange coincidence, at this point in the story he dies. Perhaps Kafka is trying to say that when a person gives up on trying to reach out to other people, no matter how desperately, he dies, whether physically or not. This implication is made supremely melancholy by that fact that Kafka himself felt isolated, and unable to reach out to others.

Kafka’s use of literary elements becomes so complex that the story is almost transformed into a parody of itself. Kafka, due to the extremely stark style that he uses, utilizes very little characterization. Most of the characters in the book are very flat, and remain static. Gregor’s character, however, contains a high degree of complexity. Again, Gregor tries with all his might to be accepted by his family, but because of a fundamental difference, that of his greater psychological depth, or complexity, compared to that of his family, he finds this acceptance impossible, and eventually dies. Kafka represents this problem with a very original technique, one that I label "beastification." Ironically, as the story progresses and Gregor becomes more beast-like outwardly, depicted by his loss of vision and his hanging from the ceiling, he becomes more human-like inwardly. At the start of the book, Gregor considers himself a very business-like man, concerned with the basic, day-to-day jumble of life, without time to ponder over philosophical nonsense. In fact when he first wakes up and finds himself transformed into a bug, he tells himself "What if I went back to sleep for a while and forgot all this foolishness." However, later on when the family clears his room of furniture, the one thing which he desperately throws himself over to protect is a picture of a lady swathed in furs, which evidently symbolizes love. As the story progresses, Gregor apparently becomes more human, and less of a machine built for society. From this point of view Gregor could be labeled the only dynamic character in the book. In the last chapter, Gregor becomes so human that he displays a wonderful appreciation of music. In third time and final scene in which he escapes from his room, he is drawn by his sister’s violin. Kafka asks "Was he a beast if music could move him so?" The reader is obviously supposed to answer that no, he is not really a beast at all, his family is more beast-ish than he. However, it is questionable whether Kafka himself understood this concept; his inferiority complex in relation to his father and his hesitance to express himself openly would suggest otherwise.

The Metamorphosis lends itself more to the psychology student instructed to profile an author based on his work than to the literature student instructed to cite and expand on different literary elements. It is obviously the work of a very disturbed man, although the disturbance would probably be more of the chronic type that slowly eats a man away than the type which causes, say, one to hallucinate. To sum up The Metamorphosis, I would call it a very deceiving book. On the surface, the simplistic plot, apparent lack of imagination with regard to the syntax, and the largely flat characters tend to drive the reader away. However, when one looks just a little deeper, Kafka’s whole world of fear and isolation opens up before his eyes.

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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