2017/10/17 - 19:04

Kafka~Samsa. Reality Through Symbolism

by Robbie Batson

It is unusual to say the least to open a book and the first line is about the main character waking up as a large insect. Most authors’ use symbolism to relate the theme of their work, not Franz Kafka. He uses a writing method that voids all aspects and elements of the story that defy interpretation. In doing this, he leaves a simple story that stands only for an objective view for his own thoughts and dreams. Kafka focuses the readers’ attention on a single character that symbolizes himself and his life, not Everyman as some authors do. This method is displayed in most of his literary works. To understand how this method is recognized, readers must study the author’s background during the period of writing and basic history to understand this author’s motive. In his short story, “The Metamorphosis”, there are multiple similarities between Kafka’s true life and Gregor Samsa’s.

Before the similarities are displayed, the justifications behind this premise are as follows. Kafka’s works demonstrates the use of a self-nulling reference system in order to void possibilities of critics attempting to use hermeneutics (Thiher, 50). Hermeneutics is the methodology of interpretation. Examples of this method can be found throughout the story in the use of the realistic and unrealistic elements intertwined in different situations. “Kafka’s Metamorphosis validates contradictory readings that cancel coherent interpretation,” is a quote by confirmed critic Gavriel Ben-Ephraim(451). A specific example can be located in Part I, when Gregor attempts to rise from bed and fails. He thinks to himself, “What a job I’ve chosen.” In truth, he did not have a choice in his occupation as he is repaying his parents’ debt to his boss by working for him at a loss. An additional example is the bug itself. Kafka describes the bug as ungeheueres Ungeziefer (“a monstrous vermin”) then the image is forgotten in certain situations as Kafka concentrates on the conflict of Gregor the man. Kafka refused to allow the image of the bug overpower the story by not permitting the publisher to illustrate it, which made the insect superfluous. There are countless other contradictions that can be found even by a novice critic if the story is read carefully.

A tidbit of history has been included to provide a background for Kafka. His upbringing is not considered normal. In 1883, he is born in Prague, Czechoslovakia to a successful Jewish couple. This combination dictated that he is neither Czech nor German, so his father sought to better the family’s name through Franz by insisting his schooling and social life be centered around the German-speaking elite of the provincial city. Throughout his childhood, he had a history of ailments that contributed to his propensity to dwell on intellectual studies instead of outdoor activities. He received a doctorate in law from the German University in Prague in 1906 per his father’s wishes. After graduating, he accepted a position as a legal clerk for a short period and found it lacking. In 1908, he left that position and started his career with a semi-governmental insurance company that probably saved his life as he is exempted from the mobilization during Hitler’s regime. This occupation required that Franz travel often and while en route he had free time to write his journals which are the beginning of his literary works. In 1917, Kafka is diagnosed as having tuberculosis of the larynx. He worked for the insurance company until he is forced to retire due to the incapacitating effects of tuberculosis in 1922. He passed away in 1924 in a sanitarium in Kierling, Austria. His will specified that he wanted his unpublished manuscripts burned, but his literary agent ignored his request. Perhaps this is an indication as to how he is treated during his lifetime.

The most obvious similarity is they both possess jobs as traveling salesmen. The readers are told Gregor is a traveling salesman and though it is not specified what he is selling, he has worked for the company for four years to pay off his parents’ debt as his father is unable to do so. Kafka worked as a traveling insurance salesman most of his life. At the time of writing “The Metamorphosis,” he had been employed there for four years against his father’s wishes. The only difference between the two is their father’ opinions about their jobs.

Another more subtle similarity is their immediate families. In the story, Gregor lives with his parents and younger sister, Grete. In the story, he is the eldest child. According to Walter Sokel, the family lived in the close confines of the small apartment and had a problems communicating with one another (paraphrase 153). The only individuals that associated with one another were the siblings. The story portrayed the father as a dependant encumbrance, yet as the story changed the father became more dominating and abusive. The mother is portrayed as a shadow of the father. She supports him in everything, even above her children. Grete is rendered as an innocent young girl that matures as the story progresses.

Kafka’s family is an almost perfect match. He had an older brother that died in the war, so the responsibilities of the eldest fell to him. He had an overbearing father that is abusive to the point of striking him at times, but mostly yelled and denigrated his son as Kafka refused to take up his fathers business, instead choosing his own path. His mother is as described in the book, weak and dependant on his father. Kafka had three younger sisters but only one, Ottilia, which he is close to. He lived with his family until after he was thirty years old and was the main breadwinner. He had no permanent personal relationships with women. He had been engaged twice to the same woman, Felice Bauer, but never married just as Gregor had not. He had few close friends and many acquaintances due to the time he spent traveling. Even their names, Samsa and Kafka, are similar in that the letters match, just like a cryptogram. Another Kafka character has a similar “cryptogram” and that is Bendemann, the main character in “The Judgement.” The letters in Bende match with both Kafka and Samsa. The similarities in their family lives and names are too numerous and telling to discount.

The most obvious parallel between Kafka and Samsa is the fact that they die early deaths alone. The name of the book “die Verwandlung,” translated as the conversion or change, is an indication of a life changing moment in time. Gregor’s life is completely altered by the fact that he becomes a vermin. Becoming an insect, Gregor crosses over an imaginary line to a point where there is no turning back, much like that of any person with a chronic illness (Ben-Ephraim 454). Kafka was afflicted with various illnesses throughout his life that contributed to his health conscious vegetarian diet. He suffered from insomnia, recurring coughs, night sweats, and similar difficulties, all of which are symptoms of tuberculosis. In 1914, there was no proper technique for diagnosing tuberculosis and the doctor identified Kafka’s sickness as bronchitis. He spent much of his time during these bouts with the symptoms in a sanitarium with only the company of his journals. With his illness and isolation, Kafka felt like vermin, unwanted, reviled. Kafka demonstrates this in his unpublished “Letter to His Father,” where he refers to himself as “Ungeziefer,”˚ that is translated specifically as vermin. (Thiher paraphrase 41) Coincidences do not transpire concurrently and consecutively.

In conclusion, there are too many “coincidences” of parallelism between Franz Kafka and Gregor Samsa to ignore the obviousness of the theme of Kafka’s work. Judging from the depth of depiction in his works, there is no other possible explanation than Kafka’s writing is a representation of himself and his life, that he just uses a different method of observation. Many critics have thoroughly studied the symbolism he used even though he negated it. Though his writing technique may be unorthodox, students of all levels would benefit from the study of his works and his background and how they coincide. This critic advises all readers to locate a copy of any Kafka novel or short story, begin a study of their own, and see if they come up with the same resolution.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Mattituck: Vanguard Press, 1946

Thiher, Allen. Franz Kafka A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990

Sokel, Walter. “From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function of Self-Alienation in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.” Thiher et al. 147-156

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations/Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Hardin, James and Daviau, Donald, ed. “Franz Kafka.” Austrian Fiction Writers, 1875-1913. Volume 81 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Michigan: Gale Research, Inc, 1989.

Ben-Ephraim, Gavriel. “Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-level Allegory and The Metamorphosis.” Midwest Quarterly. 35 (1994): 450-67.

“Franz Kafka/The Metamorphosis.” Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database.

Corngold, Stanley, ed. Oct. 2002.New York U. 21 Oct. 2002. <http://mchip00.med.nyu.edu/lit-med/lit-med-db/webdocs/webdescrips/kafka477>.

“Biography/Franz Kafka.” Literature Research Center. 2002. Thomas Gale Group. 21 Oct. 2002. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC>.

Goodwin, Evan. “little blue light-Franz Kafka.” little blue light. 6 May 2002. 13 November 2002. <http://www.littlebluelight.com/lblphp/kafka.php>.

Stephens, J. “Franz Kafka’s personal life reflected in the Metamorphosis” The Kafka Project. 1999-2002. 13 November 2002. <http://www.kafka.org/verw_issue/student_paper5.htm>.

Front Page Family Photos and Original Cover provided by Pechorin’s Special Franz Kafka 1883-1924 Page <http://www.geocities.com/univbelkafka>.

Revision: 2011/01/08 - 00:18 - © Mauro Nervi

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