The subtle yet powerful combination of comedy and tragedy in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was not an accident. Kafka combined these genres in order to convey the mixture of emotions that accurately mirrors the cruelty of life. The main character, Gregor Samsa, is used to illustrate the betrayal that can exist in a family unit as well as a place of employment. Together, Kafka is making a strong commentary on life in order to express his own feelings of desolation and cynicism regarding society and society’s microcosm, the family.
The only way to survive the inconsistencies and contradictions of life is the total acceptance of the combined comic and tragic elements of life that one must face daily. Kafka used The Metamorphosis as a vehicle to express his own frustrations with being a conflicted artist confronting society in the early twentieth century. Kurt Fickert who wrote Kafka’s Search for Truth in His Last Stories supports this contention when he said, “Establishing the mutuality of the concerns of artists and their counterparts, people of no particular sophistication, is the task Kafka assigned himself” (64).
Kafka has thus created Gregor to represent the humility and sensitivity commonly found in the stereotypical artist. Kafka felt that the modern world did not tolerate the emotional, intelligent artist, and so in Gregor we see the slow punishment of the sensitive soul. The respected Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov, remarks on the importance of Gregor’s personality in his Lectures on Literature, It should be noted how kind, how good our poor little monster is.
His beetlehood, while distorting and degrading his body, seems to bring out in him all his human sweetness. His utter unselfishness, his constant preoccupation with the needs of others-this, against the backdrop of his hideous plight comes out in strong relief. Kafka’s art consists in accumulating on the one hand, Gregor’s insect features, all the sad detail of his insect disguise, and on the other hand, in keeping vivid and limpid before the reader’s eyes Gregor’s sweet and subtle self (270).
When Nabokov says, “Kafka’s art consists in accumulating on one hand, Gregor’s insect features, all the sad detail of his disguise, and on the other hand, in keeping vivid and limpid before the reader’s eyes Gregor’s sweet and subtle self” (270), he is pointing out how Kafka wanted the reader to be absolutely clear about the irony that such a nice person was in essence being tortured. Nabokov believes that Kafka uses Gregor’s sensitive nature and horrific transformation to symbolize the conflict between society and the artist, where society misunderstands the artist and is capable of extreme cruelty.
Brilliantly, Kafka offsets the dramatic tone of Gregor’s initial discovery that he is a giant beetle by introducing humor. In the opening scenes of The Metamorphosis Kafka describes Gregor’s passive acceptance of his transformation into an insect, his resentful thoughts on his life, the comic rushing around of his parents and sister, all brought to a climax by the arrival of the chief clerk. The clerk makes a funny speech to Gregor, reminding him of his business responsibilities and demanding an explanation of his delinquency.
Just prior to this Gregor finally succeeds, following a frustrating struggle, in throwing himself out of bed. The clerk, standing outside Gregor’s closed door, hears the sound of Gregor landing on the floor, and responds: Something fell down in there… I am speaking now in the name of your parents and of your director, and I beg you in all seriousness to give me a complete explanation at once. I am amazed at you, simply amazed. I took you for a calm and reliable person, and now all at once you seem determined to make a ridiculous spectacle of yourself.
Earlier this morning the director did suggest to me a possible explanation for your disappearance-I am referring to the sums of cash that were recently entrusted to you-but I practically swore on my solemn word of honor that this could not be. However, now when I see how incredibly stubborn you are, I no longer have the slightest desire to defend you (342). When the clerk says, “However, now when I see how incredibly stubborn you are, I no longer have the slightest desire to defend you” (342), it is humorous because Gregor was only two hours late and the clerk was obviously overreacting.
It is obvious at this point what a cruel, narcissistic, and obtuse man the chief clerk is. Although he is just a co-worker of Gregor’s, Kafka uses this character to represent the cruel behaviors of society on the whole. Kafka continues to develop the connection between Gregor and the typical artist of his time by showing how selfless and oblivious Gregor is. When Gregor wakes up turned into an insect one morning, instead of panicking, he doesn’t seem to worry much about himself, only his obligations:
If I did not hold back for my parents’ sake, I would have quit long ago. I would have marched up to the boss and spoken my peace from the bottom of my heart… Well I have not given up hope completely; once I’ve gotten the money together to pay off my parents’ debt to him, I’m going to make the big break. But for the time being, I better get up, since my train leaves at five (338). When Kafka has Gregor say, “But for the time being, I better get up, since my train leaves at five” (338).
He is introducing subtle humor because Gregor actually believes he is capable of getting up and making it to work. Could you imagine a giant beetle walking to work with a briefcase? This quote is also a great example of how combining subtle humor with tragedy can effectively portray the cruelty of life. Gregor is in the midst of a trauma and does not seem to notice the predicament he is in – instead he’s worried about his family and their debts. Kafka offers another example of Gregor’s artistic temperament when he described Gregor’s relationship with music.
Gregor loves music and is profoundly affected when his sister plays the violin: His sister began to play; his father and mother, on either side, closely followed the movements of her hands. Gregor, attracted by the playing, had moved a little farther forward… Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt that he was being shown the way to an unknown nourishment he yearned for (364). While this quote clearly describes a spiritual moment for Gregor, it also hints at Kafka’s distaste for society and its prejudices.
When Gregor asks himself if he is an animal that is meant to symbolize societies judgment of the artist as a lower life form. Much of society at the time felt that only a pedestrian could be so affected by something as trivial as music. Kafka was extremely skeptical of seemingly trustworthy relationships. He did not trust society or family. In The Metamorphosis Kafka used Gregor’s subtly humorous and tragic situation as a metaphor of the human capacity for evil and betrayal.
Probably the greatest tragedy of The Metamorphosis is the disintegration of the Samsa family. The behaviors of the father are especially violent and dehumanizing. Richard Lawson describes Gregor’s relationship with his father as, “the father is the focus of Gregor’s alienation-the perpetrator of assaults on him, the thrower of the apple that seems to be at least in part responsible for Gregor’s death” (31), Gregor’s father treats him as a creature rather than a son and assaults him on more than one occasion.
Kafka describes the father’s first attack as follows: He grabbed with his right hand the manager’s cane, which he had left behind, together with his hat and overcoat, on the chair; with his left hand he snatched up a large newspaper from the table… On one side his little legs hung trembling in the air, while those on the other were painfully crushed against the floor-when, from behind, his father gave him a hard blow that was truly a deliverance, and bleeding profusely, he flew far into the room.
Behind him the door was slammed shut with the cane, and then at last everything was still (347). The bitter irony of Gregor’s situation is that it is the father who, in the first place, is responsible for Gregor’s miserable job and horrible existence as a traveling salesman. The collapse of his father’s business and resulting debt had forced Gregor to become the sole means of financial support for the whole family. Gregor’s employer is also his father’s creditor. One would think the father would be the last to turn on Gregor, but he does so in a violent manner.
The negative behavior of the father continues and eventually he throws the apple that is ultimately responsible for Gregor’s death. Kafka describes that fateful incident as follows: But his father wasn’t in the mood for such subtlies; “Ah! ” he roared as he entered, in a voice that sounded at once furious and gleeful… suddenly something sailed overhead, hit the floor nearby, and rolled right in front of him. It was an apple; at once a second one came flying after it.
Gregor stopped petrified with fear… now he was throwing one apple after another…One weakly thrown apple grazed Gregor’s back, rolling off with out causing harm. But another one that came flying immediately afterwards actually embedded itself in Gregor’s back (358). One could argue that the preceding quote describes Kafka’s tense relations with his own father, his sense of isolation, failure and guilt. Kafka used humor and tragedy as a defense against the pain and anguish he felt inflicted on him by his family and the outside world.
The serious injury done to Gregor by his father disables him for more than a month. The apple continued to stick to his body almost as a reminder of his fathers rage. Nobody is willing to remove the apple and the wound continues to get infected and ultimately weakens Gregor to the point of death. While the father-son relationship in the story appears to be a central theme, the relationship between Gregor and his sister Grete is perhaps the most tragic. Her dramatic and unexpected shift in attitude towards Gregor emphasizes Kafka’s perception of family betrayal.
Nabakov noticed the change in Grete when he said, “A new relationship begins between brother and sister… she does not bother to conceal her disgust at the awful smell in the den. Neither does she conceal her feelings when she actually sees him” (269). Grete in essence is going through her own metamorphosis. It is Grete who initially tries to do whatever she can for Gregor. She attempts to find out what he eats and discovers that he is no longer able to enjoy the human diet. Kafka illustrates the initial kindness of Grete when he writes: For there stood a bowl of fresh milk, in which floated small slices of white bread.
He could almost have laughed for joy… he immediately dipped his head into the milk, almost up to his eyes… he didn’t like the milk at all, although it had once been his favorite drink, which, no doubt, was why his sister had brought it in… he turned away from the bowl in disgust and crawled back to the middle of the room (348). When Kafka writes, “he turned away from the bowl in disgust and crawled back to the middle of the room. ” (348), this is meant to express the depth of Gregor’s transformation. His culinary affections are even changing.
To further emphasize Grete’s empathy and compassion, Kafka has Grete go through the trouble of picking out some food that a giant beetle might enjoy: She brought him a wide range of choices, all spread out on an old newspaper. There was old, half-rotten vegetables; bones left over from dinner, covered with a congealed white sauce; some raisins and almonds; a piece of cheese which Gregor two days ago had declared inedible… In addition to all this she replaced the bowl, now evidently reserved for Gregor, filled with water.
And out of a sense of delicacy, since she knew that Gregor would not eat in front of her, she left in a hurry (349). Kafka goes to great lengths in the preceding quotes to show how Grete is willing to help Gregor and is trying to do whatever she can for him. This is significant to point out because it makes her changing relationship with Gregor all the more tragic. The change in Grete’s behavior continues until it is clear that she has now begun to distance herself from her brother. Kafka illustrates the changing dynamic between siblings when he writes, “His sister no longer took thought o bring him what might especially please him, but in the morning and at noon before she went to business hurriedly pushed into his room with her foot any food that was available” (361). Kafka is showing how Grete is trying to dehumanize Gregor so she can avoid responsibility and guilt for wanting him gone. Grete completes the ultimate act of betrayal when she pleads the following to her parents, ‘We can’t go on like this. Maybe you don’t realize it, but I do. I refuse to utter my brother’s name in the presence of this monster, and so all I have to say is: we’ve got to try to get rid of it. (366). Not surprisingly, Gregor’s father reacts positively to Grete’s petition. He encourages Grete and she becomes more emphatic in her crusade to rid the household of Gregor. Grete goes on to say, “We must try and get rid of it” (366), and “It will be the death of you both” (366). Kafka has now made it clear that Grete has become the villain in this story. Grete condemns Gregor to death when she urgently locks him in his own room, crying, “At last” (367), to her parents as she turns the key and locks Gregor in his room for the last time.
It is in this scene that the mortal consequences of Grete’s betrayal of her brother become final and absolute. Michel Carrouges emphasizes this point when he writes, “Once the family realized the extent of Gregor’s condition the way they handled the situation was deplorable. The fact that he was locked away and in a sense forgotten about slowly killed him emotionally” (87). Kafka uses Grete to deliver his cynical premise, that nobody could be completely trusted-not even family.
In The Metamorphosis Franz Kafka succeeds in combining comedy and tragedy to express the pain and anguish he felt was inflicted upon him by family and society. Kafka was a writer who chose his words carefully and used humor sparingly. But when Kafka used humor, as shown here, he used it to further emphasize the tragedy of what was going on in the world. Gregor’s metamorphosis and its affect on family and co-workers poignantly illustrate the perversion of seemingly trustworthy relationships and ultimately the cruel and unpredictable nature of life itself.