Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Kafka's "Metamorphosis": A Tale of Affliction

There are several ways to read this peculiar story by Franz Kafka. You might, as many people do, see it as an existential comedy on the fallibility of man or the inhumanity of strangers, or a satire on the bourgeois family, unable to cope with change or anything that requires genuine human emotion. For the players in this drama fit a certain stereotype: the dutiful son, the petulant father who is never satisfied with his son's achievements, the loving sister who cannot deal with the ugly, cruel side of life, the mother who is uncomfortable with anything that disrupts the harmony of her family, the indifferent guests who lodge in their home and care nothing about the calamity which has befallen their landlord.  

The characters in this story are all recognizable because they are similar to how "respectable" people in all walks of life conduct themselves. That is to say, when confronted with something truly bizarre and out of the ordinary, the usual response is denial or a desperate attempt to place this disruption of normal life back into the realm of something rational and ordinary. So it is not surprising that the initial reaction by someone reading this story is to assume that it didn't really happen. In other words, no one really turns into a cockroach. The whole story is nothing but a dream. Gregor is having a nightmare, and Kafka's story is nothing but a depiction of Gregor's struggle to make sense of his disturbing dream. This way, the reader is left feeling entertained but not threatened. The world as we know it is completely rational and nothing extraordinary or supernatural ever occurs. Who cares if Gregor lives or dies? It's only a story about a dream.

I would like to suggest a different purpose by the author. "Metamorphosis" is not a satirical comedy, but a nightmare and tragedy. For the theatrical reference points are not "Waiting for Godot" or "No Exit," but Eugene O'Neill's "Death of a Salesman" or Pomerance's "The Elephant Man." What happens to Gregor is exactly what happens to Job. A decent, law abiding man who works diligently to pay off his father's debts has undergone a complete transformation. But even in his first waking moments when he becomes aware of the bizarre change which has come upon him, Gregor still wants to get out of bed and do his filial duty:

"Well, there's still hope once I've saved enough money to pay back my parents debts to him--that should take another five or six years--I'll do it without fail."

Like Job, Gregor has no idea what has happened to him or why his world has been turned upside down. The truth is that Job doesn’t deserve his fate, and neither does Gregor. One day he is living a normal bourgeois existence as a commercial traveler (salesman); the next day, he has the body of an insect. But his mind is still human. He has the same feelings and thoughts as he did as a human, but his mind is now trapped inside the body of an insect.  And like Job receiving advice from his so-called friends, Gregor soon finds that his family cannot help him. They are disgusted and frightened by his appearance. They mainly want him (or it) to go away. If he is no longer able to work, then what good is he? He has become a person with "special needs."

To make matters worse, Gregor can understand what others are saying, but they cannot understand him. He doesn't sound or look like a human being anymore. When the Chief Clerk comes to inquire why Gregor has not reported for work, it becomes clear that Gregor's value to his employer has vanished along with Gregor's human form. Although this reaction is not surprising coming from an employer; it is disheartening when his own family comes to the same conclusion. At first, his mother and sister are sympathetic and do what they can to make him comfortable. They are hoping for a kind of miracle in which their Gregor will be restored to his human body. But no miracle occurs, and as time goes on Gregor shows no improvement. They keep him boxed up in his own bedroom, which becomes a kind of storage place for things of little value.

Still, for several weeks, hope for some kind of recovery remains alive. Each day, his mother and sister bring him food and try to tidy up his room.  His sister becomes his primary caretaker. But after awhile, even these small acts of kindness are abandoned. One day, Grete comes in to find Gregor sitting in his chair, staring out the open window. She doesn't know it, but his vision is getting worse. Along with all his other physical problems, such as the festering wound in his side, he is going blind. His sister seems to realize that he is getting worse. But she doesn't know how to deal with the situation. She can't fix what is wrong with him, just as he is unable to give her the money to enable her to attend the conservatory for her music. During this period of stagnation, no one in the family has the power or even the motivation to try and change what seems to be their fate.

Yet, as Gregor’s condition deteriorates, we learn some interesting facts about his family that illuminate what Gregor's true value is to them. Along the way, you could say that Gregor’s family goes through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Then, finally, Gregor, or the creature he has become, succumbs to his illness. The charwoman comes into his room and pokes his corpse with a broom, saying “Just look at this; it’s dead. It is lying here dead and done for.”

In her eyes, Gregor is no longer a member of the family. He has become an “it” and the “it” is an intruder. In reply, Gregor’s father says, “thanks be to God.” 

Suddenly, with Gregor out of the picture, the family becomes pro-active. They evict the rude lodgers and decide they don’t really need such a large apartment. They get rid of the charwoman and then, mirabile dictu, they all manage to obtain employment. It turns out that Gregor's father is not quite as helpless and destitute as he appeared. So, from a strictly mercenary perspective, Gregor’s death has become the motivation for the family to acquire economic independence. 

But what does this play say to us about the human condition? It says we are temporary constituents of matter, mortal beings, and subject to forces we cannot control. Like Job, Gregor is innocent. He has committed no crime. And yet, innocence offers no protection from affliction. It is the innocent who must carry the moral burden of our crimes. And what are our crimes? They are too numerous to be listed, but the greatest among them is indifference to the suffering of others. Of course, there are many possible interpretations to this story. I am choosing one. The theme of alienation runs through many works of existentialist authors like Kafka. But what does alienation really mean? In moral terms, it means the inability to respond to one’s environment (or to others) in any kind of human way.

On the other hand, one can easily give the meaning of Gregor’s death a transformative spin by describing his metamorphosis as a form of Christian allegory, in which the good son becomes a sacrificial lamb whose death releases the family from its spiritual bondage and inspires them to go on and lead better lives. But this is hard to justify. The family will indeed survive and possibly even prosper, but it seems that any memory of their son has evaporated. 

In biology, metamorphosis means “a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism.” So it is fair to say that Gregor’s family has gone through its own metamorphosis. But, as my friend Ron would say, “is this a good thing, or a bad thing?”

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