Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, September 20, 2010

KAFKA: The Metamorphosis

In many ways Gregor Samsa was just an average guy. He was what we nowadays call a traveling salesman. He lived in a modest but neatly kept apartment with his parents and his sister. Such a life may seem dull to many readers but it was pleasant enough to Gregor. Everything seemed to be going along just fine and the whole family assumed that everything would continue going along just fine into the future. Then all of a sudden Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams and found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. That’s not something that happens every day. In fact I don’t know of anyone who’s suddenly been turned into a giant bug. People might have sudden earth-shattering tragedies in their lives. They may get cancer or some incurable disease. Their spouses may leave them. They may lose their jobs or their life savings. But people don’t just turn into bugs for no reason.
So what’s going on here? What are we supposed to make of this story? None of us have ever known (or have even heard of) someone being turned into a bug. There must be some other explanation. One explanation might be that Gregor hasn’t really turned into a bug. The pressures of life just got to be too much of a burden for him and he retreated into the “shell” of his own mind. In other words, maybe Gregor just went crazy. The story is told mostly from Gregor’s own mind. If the people around him were telling the story it may have been quite different: Gregor wasn’t really a bug; he just stopped talking and kept to his room. Then he slowly degenerated and finally died. That would be one interpretation. But I like to take a writer at his word. It’s Kafka’s story. Let him tell it. So let’s assume it happened the way Kafka said.

Where does that leave us? With some interesting problems. First of all Kafka seems to be asking: what is it that makes us human? Is it work? Gregor’s Mom points out her son’s strong work ethic when she tells his boss: Gregor’s not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work. It makes me almost cross the way he never goes out in the evenings; he’s been here the last eight days and has stayed at home every single evening. He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables. To have honorable and fulfilling work is one of the things that make us human. But that may also be Gregor’s primary weakness: he’s a workaholic. Shouldn’t a young man also have some hobbies or other interests outside his routine work life? Besides, our jobs can often make us just another cog in a machine. Gregor’s boss is irritated when he doesn’t show up for work one morning: I thought you were a quiet dependable person and now all at once you seem bent on making a disgraceful exhibition of yourself. The fact is Gregor has turned into a bug. He’s supposed to be a traveling salesman. Who’s going to buy anything from a giant bug? One lesson modern Americans may draw is this: when people lose their jobs how much of their identities do they also lose? Surely work isn’t the only thing that identifies us as members of the human race. Most of us have families and personal interests too. The books we read, the friends we have, the places we live; all of these go into making up our common humanity. Gregor was no different. At one point he starts losing all the personal possessions that make him “Gregor”: He could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background?... They were clearing his room out; taking away everything he loved… His last glance fell on his mother… Cold hard facts can give us an objective scientific view of life. But stories may be better for showing us human reality. Kafka knew how to tell a good story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Focusing on Gregor's humanity, or what traits make any person distinctively human, is one point of entry into this story. Another way of thinking about it is to ask what is "real" and what happens when our definition of "reality" conflicts with our actual experience. For example, as you point out, most people do not turn into bugs. So it is natural that we would assume Gregor merely imagined he was a bug. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that under special circumstances it is possible for a human to be transformed into an insect? Then how would we interpret this story? For me, "Metamorphosis" is about the idea of change versus the idea of continuity. What is our perception of the world around us? That it conforms to natural laws which can be understood and explained using logic and the rules of scientific evidence. But how do we explain miracles? A miracle is a transformative experience that cannot be explained using logic or reason. Then what are they? It depends on your frame of reference. If you believe in God, then you accept the possibility of miracles. If you don't believe in God, then you have to rethink your understanding of nature. And so on. Gregor becomes a bug and cannot reconcile his transformation with anything in his experience. Isn't this what life does to us? Can any of us really grasp how life came to be? How can something alive evolve out of something not alive, such as atoms of Hydrogen, Carbon and Oxygen? Does anyone understand what the experience of dying is like? These facts of our existence are beyond our understanding. And yet birth and death are common occurrences that happen to everyone. Maybe being changed into an insect isn't really impossible. It just happens to be indescribable. What happens when our assumptions about reality collide with our actual experience? Sometimes we refer to this as mental illness. At other times, we might call it an epiphany. When Saul was on the road to Damascus, he didn't regard his vision of Jesus as a sign of mental illness. He believed it was sign of God. Can anyone say for certain that Gregor did not have a spiritual revelation? Of course, we know that biologically, it is impossible for people to be transformed into insects. So it is easier to understand this as a metaphor. Perhaps all of human existence is merely the creation of metaphors inside our mind. A mere neurological phenomenon of human brains trying to cope with a reality that is irrational and infinite and forever unknowable.


9/27/2010 6:46 AM  

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