The Metamorphosis” is fueled with compassion, and built on the basic aspects of life that cause pain and incite fear in humans; change, rejection, paralysis (which is technically the loss of control of one’s self), failure, loneliness, and death. “The Metamorphosis” is ultimately a tale of death, although literary scholars have considered it an allegory between good and evil, and fantasy and reality. In Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov concludes in regard to “The Metamorphosis” that, “any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual. (Nabokov 252). Although Nabokov was referring to “The Metamorphosis” when he stated the above, his statement can be used to give a basic understanding of all of Kafka’s works, which are often analyzed side by side for the sheer fact that all of his works contain and maintain the same overall themes. In addition to Nabokov’s analysis of “The Metamorphosis”, there is a plethora of other interpretations, which is the case in regard to all of Kafka’s works.
In The Commentator’s Despair, by Stanley Corngold, over 130 interpretations of “The Metamorphosis” are discussed, including the often overlooked Freudian analysis, a psycho-analytical perspective that shines light on the very important role that gender and sexuality play in deciphering the spine behind Gregor’s character, which stem from issues with both maternal and paternal control (Flores 259), and further solidifies the parallels between Gregor and Kafka.
The Freudian approach to analyzing Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is, in my opinion, the most affective way of actually deciphering and understanding what Kafka was doing with this story. Although the artistic moments need to be acknowledged with the same decree, I don’t feel that they can properly express the multiple layers of thought put into the construction of “The Metamorphosis”. Kafka would disagree with me though, he considered psychoanalysis “a helpless error”, and felt that Freud’s theories were “approximate, very rough pictures, which did not do justice to details, or what is more, to the essence of the matter. (Nabokov 256). The most obvious theme that Corngold discusses is how Kafka uses Gregor’s misfortune to display society’s treatment of those who are different. It is these elements of social conformity and the lessons that each individual who reads it takes from it, that gives “The Metamorphosis” the proper literary elements to be properly defined, in my opinion, as a fable. Further speculation concludes that Kafka used “The Metamorphosis” to sarcastically approach the absurdity of human existence; this factor has allowed “The Metamorphosis” to be analyzed from an existential perspective.
Whatever route of interpretation is favored, none of them will make complete sense with out looking at Kafka’s very unique style of composing a piece of literature. “The Metamorphosis” was one of the few pieces of writing he published during his life, and it wasn’t until after his death in 1924 that all he had worked on was finally published. It was only then that his works became a focal point for literary critics around the world, and ultimately built the reputation that is Kafka (Cornwald xi ).
His signature style is a manipulation of basic literary layout and structure (Gray 83), mixed with a subtly complex grip of mental affect. Kafka is one of the few writers that can manage to reverse the basic layout of an Aristotelian narrative, by avoiding the drama that leads to the climactic moments in the story, or in some cases playing with the manner in which the drama unfolds (Greenberg 69). Some might think that this would cause a piece to be ultimately uneventful, but on the contrary Kafka captures his readers in either the first sentence or the first few paragraphs of “The
Metamorphosis” by creating situations that create such an element of disbelief that one has no choice but to continue reading. While keeping attention captive through the suspension of disbelief, Kafka uses ideas elements beyond the human plane of sight and thought, while effectively integrating the fundamentals of existence. Kafka’s writing is completely surreal, and through irony, and the use sometimes subtle, sometimes clear symbolism, he takes the unbelievable and puts it right in the middle of a setting which anyone can relate to.
In my personal opinion, I don’t feel that Kafka’s works can be compared to any other writers, which leads me to believe that his influences can only be taken from his personal life, rather than that of other writers. In contrast to my opinion, “The Metamorphosis” has been compared to Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, a short novel based off the basic fundamentals of existentialism, that Kafka called a “great favorite” (Greenberg 70). “The Metamorphosis” is compared to Death of Ivan Ilyich on the basis that they both focus on the main characters refusal to acknowledge his death.
In addition to Tolstoy’s influence, it is a documented fact that Kafka based his writing style on that of Gustave Flaubert, who despised the over used “pretty-prose” and watered down opinions that many writers produced. It is with Flaubert’s works where Kafka learned the art of ironic precision, through the proper use of language, and how to deliver it with out making his private sentiments aware on the immediate surface (Nabokov 256). Although the outside influences are important to the origin of “The Metamorphosis”, it is Kafka’s use of symbolism that gives the story its true depth.
Kafka’s use of an insect to portray the prison that Gregor is trapped, has numerous elements of symbolism alone. In “The Metamorphosis”, it is made very clear early on, before Gregor’s family is aware of his change, that his father, Mr. Samsa, brings hostility to Gregor’s life. In the conversation that takes place between Gregor and his family through his bedroom door (Kafka 5-6), when each member speaks, there is a description following their statement. Mrs. Samsa spoke, and it was described as “gentle”, his sister Grete “moaned gently”, while Mr.
Samsa’s manner of speaking was described as a “warning voice”, obviously an attempt to instate fear and guilt. After Gregor unveils his “new self”, we are further informed how intensely his father has no sympathy for the things Gregor is enduring or has endured. Rather than feeling any form of sympathy for Gregor, which is displayed clearly through the shock and upset of his mother and sister, Gregor’s father shows rage, forcing a blanket of failure over Gregor, because he can no longer work and fix the disastrous financial situation that Mr. Samsa created in the first place.
It is Mr. Samsa’s lack of sympathy towards Gregor that makes the role of an insect so important. In the animal world, the idea of a father does not exist. In the insect world, the role of a mother and father, or family for that matter, does not exist. Later, when the rest of Gregor’s family disconnects from him, the connection between being an insect and the lack of familial interaction fit together perfectly (Flores 259). Here is Kafka creating a mirrored image of his own feelings towards a father figure, which was something he always lacked in his own life (Flores 259, Nabokov 274).
Another serious aspect of the symbolism behind Gregor’s being an insect has it birth in the theories of one of Kafka’s main influences, existentialism. Animals and insects are not required to understand or cope with the problems and emotions that human beings must deal with. Animals and insects, even if found in a pack, are solitary creatures, and do not wilt into states depression and social dysfunction if contact with other creatures is not prevalent in their life. Being alone is not a fear, or even an emotion, that say, a cockroach, would have.
The idea that animals and insects could make it through life with out any of the stresses that makes human beings so peculiar, fascinated Kafka (Greenberg 82). He is making a point of the absurdity of human emotion and social opinion by giving a cockroach human traits, a true portrayal of just how oppressive the burdens of being human, could be (Flores 255); but this is not a display of how oppressive being alive is, because if the cockroach Gregor had become never experienced human thought, he would have survived.
He died from the pain of change, and from the inability to give up the characteristics that made him who he was in his former, human, life (Emrich 145). It is a solid existential theory, that once you are removed from life or society, your worth dissipates and you are forgotten, which Gregor ultimately was. Just like an actual insect or animal, Gregor no longer has an origin or a destiny, just the ability to live in the present moment (Flores 259). Something else I found interesting about Kafka’s use of a cockroach, is the fact that cockroaches are notorious for surviving any kind of earthly situation or disaster.
If oldest and toughest insect on the Earth cannot make it through the perils of human thought processes, or consciously survive the cruelty of society, that is not saying much for the human race. Beyond his issues with family and society, at the time Kafka wrote “The Metamorphosis”, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a diagnosis that during the 1900’s more or less meant death would be arriving sooner than one expected. If “The Metamorphosis” is actually as paralleled to Kafka’s life as speculated, this could explain the theme of death that “The Metamorphosis” is based on.
It also explains the existential elements that continuously flow through the story. Gregor, although alive in the flesh, might as well be dead from page one, just like Kafka, although alive, might as well close his coffin door the moment the doctor tells him he has tuberculosis. This over all need to cope with self-conclusion, is indeed the theme of “The Metamorphosis”, but it is complimented very gracefully by the manner in which Kafka puts together the structure of the story. Completely disregarding the basic format of the Aristotelian narrative, he produces a tale of death with out denouement.
The story opens with pure shock and disbelief “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. ” (Kafka 3), which although is a very exciting first line, it can be a determiner that the story is going to go one of two ways. Because the novella now has told you the most interesting event in all of Gregor’s life, the ‘remainder’ of the plot, has nothing left to do but subside. This means either nothing but boring narrative, or the unfolding of a very complicated situation that has no choice but to develop as intricately as any other piece of fiction.
Obviously, in “The Metamorphosis”, the latter of the two scenarios occurs, and regardless that the high point of astonishment has already occurred, Kafka continues to shock and build a story through the execution of three sub-climaxes, scattered evenly as need be through out the rest of the story (Greenberg 69). Opening the story with the climax is a risque tactic that is not successfully executed by other fiction writers, but what Kafka did right, was open not just any story with the climax, but a story about death. The only reason that there is such a high level of astonishment in that first line, is not because it is made clear to the eader that Gregor is dead, but because he has become an insect. If the first line discussed Gregor’s death due to heart attack, there would be a completely different reaction and the suspension of disbelief that Kafka created through using almost traumatizing humor, would be gone. After reading that our main character has transformed into a giant insect, there is no need to want to understand why he has become this way. On the contrary, I for example, wanted to know what was to become of him now that poor Gregor transformed into a “monstrous verminous insect”.
Humans are nosey in nature, and it is not uncommon to react towards the misfortune of others and the completely bizarre with serious curiosity. There is no doubt in my mind, that Kafka purposely prepared “The Metamorphosis” the way he did, as a joke, to make yet another observation into the pseudo-sympathetic and truly wicked mind of the human race. There is a multitude of other literary elements that are directly affected by Kafka opening the story with the climax. First off, since the climax has already occurred, it is clear that the protagonist in our story is Gregor, since he has obviously gone through some pretty serious changes.
Kafka did another strange thing while writing “The Metamorphosis”; he not only gave Gregor the role of the protagonist, but also the role of one of the main antagonists. I say ‘main antagonist’ because in reality, everyone in Gregor’s life after his metamorphosis is an antagonist. Gregor does an excellent job of challenging himself and creating conflict that is not only personal, but conflict that affects his entire household, and as if Gregor was not going through enough, his families suppression of what has truly happened to him that will pose as the greatest challenge for Gregor to cope with.
It is in the sub-climaxes that the chaos and misunderstanding regarding Gregor’s metamorphosis comes to a boiling point. In his first appearance to his family, all the characters, whether protagonist or antagonists alike, change dramatically, another literary rule Kafka played with in “The Metamorphosis”, antagonists do not usually experience any kind of change or enlightenment. But, I like that Kafka freely altered the general conception that the antagonists cannot go through growth and change though, because with out the tweaking of that element, the ending would never of been able to have as strong an impact as it has.
Gregor’s second appearance to his family is as pathetic as his attempt to get dressed for work the morning of his transformation. If I there was a moment that this book could make me cry, the moment that Mr. Samsa wails the apples at his once son, now cockroach, would undoubtedly be the designated time. Upsetting aspects of this scene aside, Kafka could not have represented the burden of sin that the whole home is holding on their backs, in any other way.
The apple in itself is a universal symbol of original sin, betrayal, and the end of creation. All of those elements are exactly what is happening to Gregor at the very moment that apple is lodged into his back. His father threw with that apple all the anger and resentment inside his heart, resulting in his son developing a wound that will never heal, much like the wound that Gregor’s family has had to cope with. But just like Gregor’s family is blind to what his metamorphosis really is, Gregor is blind to the deep cut his ‘disability’ has caused.
It is interesting to further the parallels between Gregor’s wound and his family’s trauma, and to notice that Gregor’s wound continues to fester more and more everyday he is alive, in the same way that his presence becomes a worse infection through his house as each day he continues to breath passes (Emrich 141, Greenberg 78, Gray 87). It is the wound in Gregor’s back that will eventually lead to his death. With Gregor’s death comes the end of the story, but not of the lives of the rest of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, with out creating a situation where the antagonists change, the end of the story would not have made sense.
Grete, Gregor’s sister, at the end of the story has grown into a woman. With Gregor now passed away, the family feels the burden of his transformation has been lifted. They realize that life is not a bad as it seemed, even before Gregor transformed into a cockroach, and that while they were preoccupied with the shame of Gregor, they failed to realize that their daughter is a fine woman who is at the time where she can be married. With out even realizing it, Gregor indeed helped his sister become a woman. His pain made her strong.
Her positive rebirth is directly related to the negative of Gregor’s change and death. Kafka is actually following a theme in most works in the literary world here. Catastrophe creating rebirth is prominent in most of Shakespeare’s plays. “Romeo and Juliet” for example, the feud of the two families is only resolved through the death of their children. Death, or catastrophe, creates new outlooks and ideas, rebirth (Gray 91). Between symbolism and the manipulation of literary format, Kafka is able to complete the basic foundation of modern and pre-modern drama.
There are numerous ways to interpret what Kafka was trying to say to readers with “The Metamorphosis”, and although there is a multitude of books that speculate, no one really knows. With every opinion and analysis, another theory is born in regard to “The Metamorphosis”, making it one of the most highly debated pieces in literary history.