Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, October 20, 2014

KAFKA: The Metamorphosis, Part 1 (Bugs and People)

Pop quiz. How many times have you fallen asleep and woken up the next morning? Many, many times for sure. How many times have you fallen asleep and woken up the next morning as a bug? That’s how this story begins. Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman. He goes to bed one night and when he wakes up the next morning he has somehow turned into a bug. This could be a horror story or a modern-day movie like The Fly. So why is it included in the Great Books?
The story of Gregor Samsa raises many questions. For starters if a man falls asleep one evening and wakes up the next morning as a bug is he still a “man” too? Gregor still has his own personal memories of his work and his family. He still has human emotions. He still feels hunger and hope and sadness. But he has the body of a beetle. Healthy human food such as milk and bread repulses him. He can understand what people are saying but he can’t talk back to them in human language. So the first hurdle we face in understanding this story is answering the question: what makes Gregor Gregor? What is it about this man that defines him specifically and uniquely as “Gregor” the traveling salesman, or Gregor the son, or brother, and so on? What is it that connects Gregor to the real world day after day, week after week, year after year? No matter how many times he falls asleep and wakes up again, he’s still “Gregor.” Until now.
The next hurdle we face in understanding the story is why a bug? It would be a very different story if Gregor had gone to bed and woken up the next morning as a woman. It would be a very different story if Gregor had turned into a cuddly little kitten or a cute little puppy. What is Kafka trying to tell us when he has Gregor turn into a bug instead of a woman or a kitten or a puppy? A woman is another human being. We can understand that. Kittens and puppies can be playful and affectionate. We can understand that too. People adopt kittens and puppies as pets. But who has ever adopted a bug as a pet? Scientists and nature lovers study bugs to learn more about them. But they don’t feel affection for them. And of all living species insects (along with reptiles) are the species most alien to us. We can feel warm-blooded affection for higher mammals and many people love birds. But who can love a bug?
That’s how Kafka sets up a story that’s ripe for philosophical speculation. Here we have a man who is alienated from the human family, he’s alienated from his own family, and he’s even alienated from his own self. So what does he worry about? Being late for work. Gregor thinks “…what an exhausting job I’ve picked! Traveling about day in, day out.” He usually catches the 5:00 morning train but today he overslept. He’s turned into a bug and that’s inconvenient. Now his clothes won’t fit and it will be much harder to meet his sales quota. Some customers may not feel comfortable placing orders with a bug sales rep. But if he hurries he still has time to catch the 7:00 train. I turn into a bug and this is what I worry about? What is Kafka trying to tell us?
On one level maybe Kafka’s just telling an interesting story. All good writers do that. This story happens to be a bizarre tale. But lots of people like reading about bizarre things. Just ask Stephen King. On a deeper level Kafka may be asking us to consider what is so special about people? What makes us human? What makes us different from bugs? Or is Kafka asking us to be kind to one another? Or is he asking us to pause in the middle of our busy daily lives and consider what we value most? Maybe he’s asking all these things; maybe not. After all literature isn’t philosophy. As a storyteller Kafka doesn’t have to prove anything. He’s just telling a story. And that’s a very human thing to do. Bugs don’t tell stories.


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