Rereading The Metamorphosis

METAMORPHOSIS
noun meta·mor·pho·sis \ˌme-tə-ˈmȯr-fə-səs\

: a major change in the appearance or character of
someone or something

(in biology) : a major change in the form or structure
of some animals or insects that happens as the animal
or insect becomes an adult

(Source: Merriam Webster Dictionary)

You can read The Metamorphosis here for free.

 

Metamorphosis happened in the life of Gregor Samsa. He discovered this major change in his appearance in to a form of vermin or insect, as he woke up late for his train for he was a traveling agent. A conventional way of setting this story in motion would be by unleashing a graphic narrative of the emotional and physical difficulties faced by Gregor as he slowly discovers himself in an insect’s body thereby leaving it to the reader to unearth about his metamorphosis. However author Franz Kafka preferred to be straightforward by mentioning his change in the first line itself-

 

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It is interesting to note that the actual meaning of Ungeziefer is “an unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice” and is sometimes used colloquially to mean “bug” or “insect.” Yet it does not simply mean a “bug,” “insect” or “beetle,” since there are German words for those (“Wanze,” “Insekt,” “Käfer”). The vagueness is precisely Kafka’s point, that is, to not mention Gregor’s transformation into a the specific thing! However, translator Michael Hoffman uses the word cockroach in the English translation, while some have used the word vermin or insect.

 

The intention of the writer is not to inform about the metamorphosis but a chain of reactions to this inexplicable change that determines the life of Gregor Samsa and his family in the face of the unnamed society. Within the dominoes of reaction, Kafka illuminates various themes related to a modern man’s life- familial and societal expectations versus realities, religion, demands of the rapid industrialisation, identity crises, alienation, existentialism that can be related to the personal life of the author as well as the reader without any temporal limitations. In this way fiction has allowed Kafka to introduce extraordinary elements from personal experiences in the life of an ordinary man that leaves the story open to a variety of interpretations about Kafka’s thoughts and our own personal lives.

The novella takes place in an apartment in an unnamed city and unspecified time, although the setting resembles Prague at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung). After much generation of empathy in the reader towards Gregor-turned-insect trying to get out of his bed, the first chapter reveals the economic dependence of the family on Gregor’s occupation of a traveling agent which, after the discovery of his transformation by family members and work colleague is difficult to continue. The only source of decent income to take care of his family and grooming of his younger sister is now gone. Like Gregor, Franz Kafka after his graduation lived with his parents. Kafka’s work at a dull insurance office resembles Gregor’s dull, forced occupation of a traveling agent where he had to wake up early to meet the work requirements. Family tensions, deteriorating health of his parents and Kafka’s own self-doubts is well reflected in the Samsa household. However, one of the main intentions of Kafka’s writings is humor, which in search of serious meaning, goes unrecognised. Humor is a common response to emotional pain, and laughing in the face of hardship is not unusual. Kafka’s humor is especially apparent in Chapter One, as Gregor makes adjustments to his new life.

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Kafka’s writings were meant to be read with humour, more as a satirical work.

Family

The second chapter widens our lenses to understand the Samsa family- we learn of a commercial catastrophe five years back that had forced the family to shift into a smaller house trapped with debt. With alienated Gregor’s habitat in uncomfortable cramped spaces of his room such as under the bed, he has awkward non-verbal conversations with his sister Grete, the only one to support him by leaving him his new diet- leftover stale food. Another symbolism for space can be observed when Gregor’s mother refuses to move the furniture proposed by Grete for Gregor’s free movement on the walls and ceiling, for they held certain importance and memories. This shows how the older generation like Mrs. Samsa hold on to their past for rigid reason which makes it difficult for their future generation like Gregor and Grete whose mentality is comparatively different due to changed times from theirs to settle comfortably in a different way. There is also a loss of communication- a failure of communication between his inner human thoughts, emotions and the external physical image of his which led everyone to judge him. In this way Kafka shows us how important communication is to be human. The protagonist’s transformation then becomes not just a physical change but symbolic of a change in times, which in Kafka’s time was that of a modern, minority German speaker where Jews comprised only of 5 per cent of the Christian, Czech speaking population.

The Father, Son and the Guilt

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The first page of Kafka’s letter to his father. To know more about the letter, click here

Samsa family’s debt is an element that has been reinterpreted over the times from Kafka’s personal take on family ties and his relationship with his father, Hermann Kafka. The father was the exact opposite of his slender, shy, and thoughtful son: large, authoritarian, forceful, gruff, obsessed with his clothing business, and emotionally distant. Just as the protagonist’s interest in music was never appreciated by his father, Hermann Kafka was never able to appreciate his son’s special talents. In both the cases, the strained relationship between father and son led to lifelong guilt, anxiety, and lack of self-confidence for Franz and Gregor. We come to know of this weak relationship in a famous 1919 letter to Kafka’s father which was never delivered. He claims that he felt as though he could not possibly live up to his father’s expectations of him. With this weariness of crushing parental authority, not living up to expectations becomes an unpayable debt. Gregor takes up the debt of his family business which later becomes unpayable due to his physical limitations which kills him of helplessness and guilt. The word schuld is a German word for ‘debt’ which also means ‘guilt’.

Identity and Religion

Likewise, it is unknown if Kafka was supportive or critical of his Jewish identity. There are significant themes in the story that are directly dealt with Jewish theology. For instance, The Metamorphosis has elements of a parable, a story that illustrates a ‘moral lesson’ which is majorly part of Jewish Theology. Themes like filial shame, regret, horror has uncanny resemblances to the Kafka’s relation with his father and the Jewish parable of Akedah (The Binding), images (4) the story of the aborted blood sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in Genesis 22. What is noteworthy is the meaning of Ungeziefer (vermin) which derives from a Middle High German word meaning “an unclean animal not suited for sacrifice.” The paternalistic attitude towards the condemnation of their sons with similar names Georg (in Genesis) and Gregor demonstrates Kafka’s strong critique of the religion tied to the disciplinarian attitude of his father (His picture to the left). However instances such as the ‘conversion’ itself, the wrath of the father in hurling of the fatal apple which almost resulted in Gregor’s ‘Christ-like’ death by being “nailed” to the floor offer other religious resonances. Despite mentioning all of the religious symbolic ideas neither the good nor the evil is the result of Gregor’s metamorphosis as the writer takes a neutral stand in the narration of his life.

 

Societal Expectations

In the third Chapter Kafka undercuts the unreality of the situation with realistic treatment by his family- their busy involvement in meeting the household’s ends made them gradually move away from taking care of Gregor. As the condition of the humans in the Samsa household became financially strenuous and challenging, the vermin’s life became simpler. The source of the tension mainly came from the three pernickety bachelor tenants whose emphasis on cleanliness was so vital that even the slightest dirt would create an uproar in the household. The existence of a vermin in the house now became a problem, more of a burden on the Samsa family. Gender is another theme that is highlighted from here- Gregor’s sister Grete leads the responsibilities of the family which comes as an embarrassment as the duties were dominated more by men. The high intolerance of  the tenants reflect the attitude of the society in Kafka’s times- extreme intolerance for the ‘dirty and useless’ who have no ability to appreciate higher standards of lifestyle.

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                            “It was especially unnerving, the way they all blew the smoke from                                              their cigarettes upwards from their mouth and noses.”                                       (Courtesy: Magpie Comics)

The reaction of the tenants towards Grete’s musical performance denotes the double standards- no matter how sophisticated and intellectual they tried to be, they still exhibited a narrow outlook; as compared to transformed Gregor whose humane appreciation for music is out rightly rejected by the sight of his body. The increasing burden of pain on this very image of Gregor leads him to his death by choice, as a duty of a sacrificing son. The body then becomes the source of distinction which in Kafka’s times was that of the identity of the Jews who were racially understood to be different from the other races, and thus were culturally branded inferior despite the assimilation with the majoritarian Gentile society. Kafka seems to be acknowledging the biological fact that the body assigns us to each fate from which we cannot run while on the other hand, the survival of humanity depends on the deceitful measure of which body separates and unites an individual from another. This very pain in the body shows the death of Gregor.

Reality in Fiction

The Metamorphosis along with autobiographical elements has left us an array of questions that Kafka has challenged in fiction. We only get to know Gregor’s rhetoric, and not what goes on the minds of the other characters so that we are deeply connected with the human emotions and thoughts of Gregor which no one else in the story except the reader knows. The themes that have been deliberated above have challenged us to think more deeply about the relationship between the animal and the human in ourselves. The fictional literature stands as a testimony to how religion, modernity, multiculturalism often leave out simple aspects like humanity which kills us from the inside.

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Featured Image Courtesy: Vedran Štimac

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