Published 14 Dec 2016
At the turn of the 20th century a struggling Jewish writer living in Prague was trying to balance work and honing his craft. In his lifetime he was not able to taste literary success but was successful in creating one of the most thought provoking work that redefined what writing is all about. His name is Franz Kafka and his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis.
This paper will attempt to interpret The Metamorphosis for the purpose of sharing it to a new generation of readers. It will not be an easy task. Whoever will undertake the work of understanding it must realize that Kafka’s opus is like a gem that is multifaceted. Thus, a student reading it must not stop after getting one set of interpretation. This is what makes Kafka’s work a good read and part of the reason why interest regarding the material did not wane, even after close to a century since its publication in the year 1915.
It is a well known fact that man is a creature of habit. Habits are also formed quite easily. It only takes a few weeks to develop one. Now imagine the activities and hobbies that this person is used to doing. The regular day to day things that were already taken for granted. What if all of a sudden something happens that will disallow the person to have the ability to do the normal and the ordinary? It is an invalid’s worst nightmare.
This crisis being described happened to a character in a Franz Kafka novella. The main character of the story Gregor Samsa woke up one morning with a terrible realization. The traveling salesman, turned into a gigantic bug. He did not only was transformed into a vermin he was also suffering ailments unknown to him and seems to be difficult to diagnose and understand. His transformation was a metamorphosis gone very badly. His voice, his face, his upper and lower body all was changed into something horrible.
Of course there is no human bug and of course Kafka wrote fiction. But it can also be understood that the author was using metaphor to communicate a ton of truth. In a creative way Kafka wanted the world to know how it feels to be disabled.
The author creatively brings the reader to a place of teaching. But instead of lecturing the students he created a way to communicate the two ways of how a person can be invalid. The first one, by virtue of common sense, everybody knows that the usual cause of disability is through an accident. An unfortunate even that ruins lives like being hit by a car driven by a person who suffered a stroke. It can also come by way of natural calamities such as earthquakes, typhoons etc. But according to Kafka’s book – without saying it aloud – there is another sure way of becoming an invalid. And that is through self-infliction brought about the many negative experiences that plagued the mind. It is self-inflicted because the world around the person is too much to bear. In the book, Gregor Samsa was wasting away on a job that he hates. For reasons that will be made clear at the end, the metamorphosis of Gregor from a super reliable, hardworking, tough as nails person to a hated, ridiculed and much ostracized vermin was for a purpose. Yet at the moment, the life that he knew too well is gone.
When a person becomes disable it does not really matter how he had arrived at that stage what occupies the patient’s mind is how he could get his life back. And that is when the ordeal will start, day one in hell on earth.
The first stage is the struggle to accept that life will never be the same again. To those who lost the use of hand, limbs, and senses has to admit that the only thing to do is to move forward. There is a need to realize that it is useless to force the body to do things the way it used to and it is very important to that it is better to function than to die a slow agonizing death.
Al Siebert a doctor of psychology has this to say about moving on and beating the odds and the two typical reactions of invalids:
Some people feel victimized and blame others for their plight. Some shut down. They feel helpless and overwhelmed. Some get angry. They lash out and try to hurt anyone they can. A few, however, reach within themselves and find ways to cope with adversity. They eventually make things turn out well (Siebert, 1996).
The second thing that strikes the invalid’s heart is the sudden and unexpected rejection of the people close to him. The rejection may not be verbalized but it could be felt and understood just as easily as well. The people close to the victims may feel a tinge of remorse because of the way they reacted to the disability of a loved one but still strong negative feelings show.
Sometimes a relative or even a family member will wish for the early demise of a loved one, justifying the wicked thought in the hope of ending the person’s suffering. In the story it was Gregor’s sister, Grete, who demonstrated this kind of behavior. She was vocal about her frustrations in taking care of his brother who turned into a partially immobile vermin.
On the final stage of the chain reaction, an unexpected thing will occur. The invalid gives up hope knowing that he will always see himself as a pitiful shell of his old self. Then the people around him suddenly put themselves into new roles. If the invalid was the breadwinner of the house while the rest depended on him for provision, now the situation will reverse itself and the dependent will become the bread winner so that the community or the household will survive. They will suddenly become much stronger in character, will, and purpose for the sake of the disabled member of the family.
In the novella Gregor Samsa was the sole provider for the family, earning money to support his father, mother, and sister. While Gregor forces himself to succeed in a frustrating job his family demonstrated what it is to be a slot by not helping augment the income of the family. But when Gregor reached a point of no return and when his physical condition began to deteriorate into hopelessness, his father suddenly experienced a rebirth in terms of zeal in finding work. His father succeeded in his new career while the rest of the family are also discovering their potential to be more productive.
As it turned out Gregor was not the only one who underwent a metamorphosis. His family members went into their own metamorphosis as they tried to cope with a member of the family that suddenly became invalid.
This is one way of interpreting Kafka’s work. But it must be understood that this is just one of the possible interpretation of the novel. One way of trying to comprehend the novella is through viewing the work in the context of the author’s life. Thus, a facet of the masterpiece will be seen in a new light. A simple background study of Kafka will help unearth another set of interpretation, closer perhaps to what the author intended for the reader to grasp.
Franz Kafka was born in the year 1883. He was born in Prague to middle-class Jewish parents. His father was an entrepreneur. According to Emma Chastain:
…Kafka held on to bitter memories of his childhood, particularly of his upwardly mobile, harsh father. As Kafka admitted in the never-sent Letter to His Father: ‘My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out-leave-taking from you.’ (2004, p. 519).
The piece of information revealed above is enough to revisit The Metamorphosis and see some of the component of the story in a different light. But there is more. According to Sander Gilman, at the turn of the century Europe, the Jewish people were experience a whole new level of persecution.
At the time when Kafka was growing up the degradation of the Jewish race came in the form of insult to their physical prowess. Gilman secured a copy of the physical exam that Kafka went through as a prerequisite for a job application and this is what the doctors said regarding the frail body of the author, “His body is thin but delicate. He is relatively weak […] He has weak chest muscles” (2005, p. 14).
This view was based on the confession of Kafka who said that, “It is certain that a major obstacle to my progress is my physical condition. Nothing can be accomplished with such a body […] My body is too log for its weakness, it hasn’t the least bit of fat to engender a blessed warmth to preserve an inner fire (Gilman, p. 16).
But it is Emma Chastain’s insights that proved to be the more significant revelation of all the literature reviewed for this study. Chastain mindful of Kafka’s Jewish heritage wrote the following, “ Kafka did not quiet fit in anywhere. He was a Czech in the Astro-Hungarina empire, a German-speaker among Czechs, a Jew among German-speakers, and a disbeliever among Jews. He was alienated from his pragmatic and overbearing father, from his bureaucratic job, and from the opposite sex” (p. 519).
Using the above biographical sketch one can now go back to the story of the man-bug and see different insights. It is now clear that the Gregor Samsa was Kafka’s alter ego. Gregor’s dysfunctional family mirrors that of Kafka’s own family. The frustration of Gregor Samsa over his work, his inability to excel and show his true worth eerily resembles that of Kafka’s struggle to become a great writer.
Moreover the pained relationship between Gregor and his father was not just a way of filling up the pages but it was the personal expression of the author longing for his father’s love but was denied of ever feeling his warmth and gentleness. What he got in return was a harsh taskmaster that is content to receive but not able to reciprocate that love given by a dutiful son.
The transformation of Gregor Samsa can now be understood as the longing of Kafka to escape his dreadful experience. It is as if he is saying that it is better for him to kill himself rather than continue living. But if that is not possible then maybe turning into a vermin will give him an excuse to stay in his room and not go to work and not face his family and even his employers.
The alienation that he felt growing up as a weakling in a country where physical prowess is placed at a high pedestal is difficult for Kafka. But most of all it is his being a Jew that made it difficult for him to blend in. The vermin in the room is a reflection of that feeling. Something that people abhors and someone that the opposite sex fears and rejects.
It is now very clear that Kafka’s masterpiece is merely a pained expression of what he truly felt inside. And just like what he said in his letter to his father it is the words of a son that was muzzled and not allowed to speak up. It is his communiqué to his father and to his family that he was rejected and taken for granted until it was too late.
In a time when Hollywood movies are dictated by a simple dance-song formula, Franz Kafka was already experimenting new methods of writing. The man is an enigma to many and his work reflected that personality. A casual glance of his work makes one wonder what he really wanted to say as an author. On the other hand a true literary genius will never be able to downplay Kafka’s achievements.
He was a free thinker and was not afraid to express what he felt. Others may feel that he is simply a product of his environment. That he is merely a byproduct of a dysfunctional family. An abusive father has driven him to unexpected heights of literary genius and his frustration at work made him more disciplined in honing his skills.
Franz Kafka should be admired as a great writer. At the same time his sad life story must be a lesson to all parents and family members that actions of rudeness and the inability to show love and tenderness will affect a family member’s life. Kafka’s work was full of it even if he was clever enough to hide it.
- Chastain, Emma. 101 Novels and Plays. New York: Spark Publishing, 2004.
- Corngold, Stanley. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. 1994. Literature, Arts and Medicine. 6 April 2006
- Gilman, Sander. Franz Kafka. London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2005.
- Survivor Personality by Al Siebert PhD. 1996. No Nonsense Self Defense, LLC. 6 April 2006 http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/NNSDsiebertsurvivefull.htm