Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka

Am I the only one who wakes up most mornings frantically trying to figure out what day it is and what I need to be doing? This morning began with a familiar inner monologue: What day is today? What day is today? Yesterday was Sunday. OK, today is Monday. You need to go run, and don't forget that doctor's appointment this morning like you forgot it last week. I can only imagine how that stressful feeling might be compounded if I were simultaneously trying to come to terms with the fact that I'd somehow been transformed into a giant bug.

That is, as I'm sure you all know, the pickle in which Gregor Samsa finds himself in Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis. (Yet another book that was assigned reading in high school for everyone but me.) As the book opens, Gregor's physical metamorphosis has already occurred. The narrative doesn't concern itself with the process of the change, or even the reason behind it. Normally that would drive me crazy because, gaaaah! I want to know why!! But my mind did not dwell on that as I read. It's only dwelling on that now.

So, why call this The Metamorphosis if it only deals with the aftermath? Because there are other changes that occur during the story. The true metamorphosis is in the family's attitude towards Gregor. Formerly the sole breadwinner, he is now their burden. Surely they used to have great respect for Gregor (although I wonder if they didn't quietly snicker behind his back at the naïve way he enabled their laziness). Gregor's transformation caused immediate fear and revulsion accompanied by pity, which slowly changed to anger and hatred. It also caused a reversal of roles. Gregor's parents and sisters were the parasites at first; upon waking on that fateful morning, suddenly the parasite was Gregor.

Kafka's language in this novella is deceptively simple, leaving me certain that it is disguising hidden depths, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to read into the story. To me, it seems like more of an exercise in creative writing. "What would happen if, one day, a man woke up as a giant bug?" As a much-studied piece of literature, there are all sorts of symbols to be found, but like Nabokov said in his lecture about The Metamorphosis, we shouldn't study symbolism too closely. "I am very careful not to overwork the significance of symbols, for once you detach a symbol from the artistic core of the book, you lose all sense of enjoyment." He's hit upon the reason why so many great books are hated by students. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't study symbolism at all, but when you're lazy efficient like me, Nabokov is as good an excuse as any.

And I did enjoy reading this novella, especially the ridiculousness of it all. After Gregor's initial surprise at his new body, he seems to be in denial. He's thinking about his morning as if nothing were different. I like the absurdity of that. Then, he begins to wonder if his metamorphosis will cause anything else to change in his life. What an optimistic outlook for a giant bug.

Initial optimism aside, I felt so sorry for Gregor through most of the book. He wasn't without faults (he seemed unable to see the bad in others, for one thing) but his utter alienation from humanity, which he accepted so humbly, was quite disheartening. I may cherish solitude, but it's always with the understanding that companionship is waiting in the wings. Not so for poor Gregor. I won't tell you whether things end well for him, in case you've not read this one yet, but I'm sure you can guess that life is pretty harsh when you're an oversized beetle.

Yeah, beetle. That's really just a guess. Kafka did not specify exactly what Gregor had become. My translation calls him a "horrible vermin" in the first sentence. The cleaning lady later calls him a dung beetle. I think his specific form was intentionally left ambiguous, which is made even more evident by the fact that Kafka didn't want a picture of Gregor the Bug at all. Regarding the cover of the first edition, Kafka said, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." The unknown is frequently more horrifying than the known. I think Kafka knew that the "horrible vermin" of each individual reader's imagination would be worse than any he could describe. Personally, I tend to think of Gregor as a brand new species, kind of like a short fat millipede with lots of tiny legs and a set of sharp, fearsome-looking pincers.

Whatever kind of bug Gregor was, I'm pretty sure he wasn't a butterfly.

13 comments:

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I'm with you on the deceptively simple thing - I was shocked at how easy a read this was. I expected something really difficult and found completely the opposite but in a way that made it harder to access what kafka meant by the story. Does that make sense?

Lesa said...

Just saw the Ricky Gervais Show cartoon guys talking about this book tonight-- what a co-inky-dink!

I'm with you-- too much analyzing can ruin the enjoyment-- glad this was a good one for you!

Trisha said...

I can totally see this as a writing exercise: a really well written one, but still.

Spangle said...

I read this book years ago at University and enjoyed it. I may have to re-read this. Great review.

Kristi said...

I read this for a humanities class (10 years ago...I feel old) in college and I remember thinking it was so strange. I'll have to go back and read it again. I'll probably appreciate it more as an adult. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Gérard said...

...and for another picture:
http://www.gerard-bertrand.net/KAFKA__metamorphose.html

Eclectic Indulgence said...

It has been a long time since I read the Metamorphosis, and I have read a few reviews now that makes me want to re-read it.

My 'review' was pretty pathetic:
http://eclectic-indulgence.blogspot.com/2007/12/metamorphosis-franz-kafka.html

...and I feel a little bit guilty for shrugging it off so quickly. We had a book club discussion on it, and I think the opinions were fairly split.

Rachel said...

This has been on my TBR list for ages.

Kathy said...

Becky--that makes complete sense to me! It's a very easy read, but not so easy to determine what lies beneath the surface.

Lesa--I can only imagine what the Ricky Gervais show had to say about this book. Have you read it? (What am I saying? You've read all the books.)

Trisha--Definitely well-written. You know, surely some teacher, somewhere, has given that as an assignment . . . it would be interesting to see the results.

Spangle--Thanks! I think this book is definitely worth a re-read.

Kristi--hah, you feel old? Do you feel better when I tell you I started college 20 years ago this fall?

Gérard--That's quite an interesting picture. I think your version might be even more scary than the one in my head.

EI--thanks for the link to your review--you're right, it would have been interesting to see more of an outside influence. Although I think it adds to Gregor's sense of alienation without it.

Rachel--me too--I'd been meaning to read it for years. But it's short and it's written clearly, so it won't take long for you to knock it out!

Jessica said...

your thoughts on this completely match up with mine. I enjoyed it and loved the bazareness of it all and found the family reaction very interesing

Kathy said...

Was it what you expected? I'm not sure if I thought much about it beforehand, but I do think I expected the book to touch on the reason for the transformation. Although if it was logical like that, it wouldn't have been very "kafkaesque" . . .

Veena Singh said...

Just finished reading the book. Great review!

Veena Singh said...

Just finished reading the book. Great review!