Book Review-“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

Author– Franz Kafka

Category/ Genre– Novella/ Modernist Fiction/ Fantasy Fiction/ Absurdist Fiction/ Magical Realism

Published- 1915

Original language- German

Biography

An icon of twentieth century literature, Franz Kafka is considered one of the most influential authors in Western literature. Born to a brewer’s daughter and a shopkeeper into a middle-class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, most of his works were published posthumously.

The neurotic tension in his writings is a reflection of his autobiographical events, a bullying authoritative, ambitious father and a mother who hid behind the shadows of her husband. His first language was German, though he was fluent in Czech. Some of the writers who had influenced him include Anton Chekhov, Soren Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Gustave Flaubert.

He was an “assimilated” nonbeliever and an outsider in the Jewish community. He ambivalently respected and rebelled against authority and never was able to emerge out of self-loathing and his father’s sway. With a sensitive disposition and slight build, he was berated and bullied by his father for the same reason. His on and off relationships with Felice Bauer and later Grete Bloch, Milena Jesenska and Dora Dymant shows his belief in the importance of marriage conflicting with fear of matrimony.

He first studied Chemistry, but switched to Law later on along with German studies and art history. There he met Max Brod who would become his lifelong friend. Later, he worked as a clerk in an accident insurance office and was responsible for many policy changes which helped the workers’ lives. Most of his writings came to shape during evenings after work, when he learned to place himself in a writing trance blocking the outside cacophony. His writings bear the mark of his strained relationship with his father and his constant urge to escape him. He was diagnosed with Tuberculosis persistently troubling his health until his death.

Much of his early writings is lost. Some of his most famous ones like ‘The Judgement’, ‘The Metamorphosis’ and ‘Amerika’ were written during 1912. ‘The Trial‘, his most famous novel was written in 1914. ‘Letter to His Father‘ was written in 1919, a masterpiece letter elucidating his stories’ and novels’ theme in which the protagonist struggles with a superior power. ‘The Castle‘ written in 1922 shows power as a benign indifference and ‘The Hunger Artist’ is a brilliant depiction of artistic power. The Tuberculosis worsened and he died in Prague during 1924.

He remained unknown during his lifetime and gained popularity posthumously after his works were published. Many of his manuscripts were unfinished, rough, and written in a disorderly fashion adding to the nervous confusion of his style. At his death-bed, he had famously asked his friend Max Brod to burn the manuscripts after he died. But, Brod ignored the request and went on to edit and publish the manuscripts.

During the period of 1920’s and 1930’s, his works were published and translated to many languages. He mainly emphasized on themes like absurdity of human existence, isolation and alienation in modern society and incomprehensibility of authority and power. The nightmarish, sinister, complex and senseless qualities of Kafka’s fictional world is encompassed by the adjective, ‘Kafkaesque‘, a vernacular in English literature.

Review and analysis

The Metamorphosis is a novella published in 1915, a seminal work of fiction, one of the few works that Kafka published in his lifetime. He wrote this in 1912 after he finished ‘The Judgement and both have many things in common. The novella is highly autobiographical in content with themes of his life, beliefs, ideas, religious views and so forth. After finishing the novella, Kafka wrote in his diary, “I am living with my family, the dearest people, and yet I am more estranged from them than from a stranger.”

The story is that of a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect-like creature. We are not told the cause of this. The story moves forward and we get the glimpses of his life as a vermin, his transformation, effect of this change on his parents and sister who comes to regard him as a burden, the financial situation of the family and ends with his death and a new beginning to his family.

It ironically depicts the pressures that family and profession imposes on individual in the 20 th century. The lack of empathy and understanding of the predicaments of individual in a highly materialistic worldview is told through the unconscious metamorphosis of human into insect. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, “In The Metamorphosis, contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated.

Typical of Kafka, the story is set in the tenor of hopelessness, though a note of sanguineness is added at the end. The style is an epitome of Kafka’s works. From an impossible, extraordinary and bizarre transformation described in an ordinary, sober, straightforward way we get a taste of reality in the most absurd and chaotic overtones possible. And thence an indication of deeper meanings inside the story. Kafka happened to be the harshest critic of his novella, criticizing it’s imperfections and insisting that the ending was unreadable. Though he had let out the story in a perfect way with ‘ a complete opening out of body and soul’ , it was covered in the ‘filth and slime‘ as a newborn covered in mucus. He alludes to his writing self as repulsive.

The idea of writing about human to insect transformation is scattered in many of Kafka’s works. Notable here are his views on humanity and religion. His ideas of religion constituted marginal views outside the mainstream Judaism. To Max Brod, his long-time friend, Kafka once remarked- ‘Human beings are God’s nihilistic thoughts‘. To Brod’s question if there was any hope elsewhere in the universe, he replied ‘ plenty of hope for God, not for us’. He had always compared the imagery of insect as his ideal writing self. He imagined his body moving around the world, while his writing self remained stationary as a beautiful beetle, contradictory to the repulsive writing self that he had envisioned sometimes . Kafka had always felt like an insect in his father’s authoritarian nature and even developed a stammer from the fear of speaking to him. In the story, Gregor, as an insect cowers in fear and attacks his father.

After finishing the Law studies, Kafka was forced to take an office job, which he did not enjoy, purely out of financial worries and to help his parents pay off their debts. His parents compelled him to do overtime in the evenings, thus cutting him off his creative self. His sister who was sympathetic and understanding initially, turns against him later, something that drove him to the edge of suicide. In the novella too, reflections of these are to be seen, Gregor being betrayed by his sister who insisted that they get rid of the insect.

The idea of the story was taken from a Yiddish play, ‘The Savage One‘ by Gordin. There are many similarities between both. The main character in the play is an idiot son who is unable to communicate with his father and so locked in a room. The play gives the moral of the savage that awakens inside humans when one pursues materialistic things, that forces men to oppose humanity.

Absurdity of event in the form of a huge insect is confronted by the guilt of having cut himself off even before the metamorphosis thus alienating him from the family. We are not told about the source of his condemnation, thus intensifying his personal guilt. His office boss who comes to check on him backs away on seeing the gigantic insect. This illuminates his scruples on God as an always- receding Absolute.

Gregor is the archetypal male character of a Kafka story. He is hesitant to act, fearful of consequences, hopeless, contemplative and self-abasing. He feels guilty of things he had not done than the things that he had misdone. Absurdity of life is the main theme of the novella. He points at an universe that is order-less and without justice. The calm and unquestioning response of his family, coupled with his own indifference to the transformation adds to the absurdity element of the story. Gregor is worried about him getting fired from work and not about the transformation of his body. The only exception is the first maid who begs to be fired.

The second theme is the disconnect between the mind and the body. Though his body changes into an insect’s, his mind remains human at first. He tries to stand upright as a human and go to work, but he cannot. His sister leaves his favorite drink, milk, for him in his room, but he finds it tasteless. He finds it hard to reconcile the insect body with the human mind. Then he gradually start behaving more and more like an insect and start to crawl on ceiling, hide in the dark under the sofa and eat leftovers. Kafka thus making us infer that our physical lives shape our mental life and not the other way around. Yet, the conflict reaches a zenith when the furniture is removed from his room by his mother and sister, making room for him to crawl unimpeded, highlighting the fact that his humanity has not been effaced fully from him. He initially approves it since it would make room for him to crawl freely, but resents it later thinking that removal of his only possessions linking him to a past human life would snatch the emotional comfort from him. He is confronted by a choice, either physical comfort or emotional comfort and not both together, and the last remnants of his human mind forces him to chose emotional comfort, and he clings on desperately to the picture of the woman in fur coat on the wall.

That sympathy is not limitless is the other message in the novella. Gregor’s mother and sister are the most sympathetic with him, his sister trying hard to find out the food that he would like. Even the father who tries to physically harm him never kicks him out and lets the others care for him first. But, his appearance repulses them to the point of speaking in whispers out of fear. Effective communication is nonexistent and his human mind is unseen by them, he is being regarded as a mere insect. The unbearable nature of the stress leads them to think of expelling him from home, the idea put forth by his sister who had showed the most sympathy to him previously.

Estrangement is another theme. He had felt the alienation even before the metamorphosis, due to absence of friends or other intimate people which he attributes to the nature of his work forced on him by his circumstances. He is obliged to do a work without any passion in order to free his father from his debts. He dreams to quit the job after 5 or 6 years, once he has repaid the debts. The estrangement is complete on his transformation, physically and emotionally from his family members and the human race as a whole, as seen in his mention of the condition as “imprisonment”. He hides under the sofa when his sister tries to talk to him. Inability to communicate adds to this. In the end the toll that his labor had taken on him proves not worth the price he has to pay.

Metamorphosis is not only limited to Gregor’s body and mind , but to others as well. His sister, Grete metamorphoses from a girl to an adult physically and emotionally while taking responsibilities such as caring for Gregor and finding a job. The financial difficulties and hopelessness of the family too metamorphoses while they overcome the financial predicaments and the hope reinvigorates them emotionally. The irony of the metamorphoses is clear in the contrast between Gregor’s deterioration and his family’s change from abject horror to a happy climax.

Money, sleep and rest are prominent motifs that recur throughout the story. His existence is a commercialized one, he does the uninteresting clerical job for money only and plans to quit once he had made sufficient money. Though all Gregor thinks is about how to sustain in the job, the chief clerk exemplifies how expendable an employee is when they fail to profit from them irrespective of whether the individual is struggling or not. The Chief Clerk incriminates him of stealing the company money, without proper evidence, still Gregor thinks of how to retain his job in the company. A common interpretation of part one of the story is the Marxist critique of a capitalist system, stressing on ‘alienated labor‘- “What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, that is, that it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel well but unhappy, does not freely develop his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.The worker, therefore, feels himself only outside his work, and feels beside himself in his work. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His work therefore is not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it.Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that labor is shunned like the plague as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion.

He is a stranger to the the abyss of his”innermost self” that conflicts with the commercialized physical self. Interestingly Kafka pictures this “innermost self” of his heroes in the form of animals in his other works like “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “A Report to an Academy.” In “The Trial“, he represents this inner self that is suppressed.

Some of the critics and commentators point to the incestuous nature of his love for Grete. There are specific lines in the novella and Kafka’s diary entries to support their claims. The delusional nature of relationships, even those that are intimate points to the mutual exclusivity of truth and life. Gregor is mistaken about the senseless sacrifice of his soul for the benefit of the family, he expects untainted love in return, but has to make do with compromises that rupture in his “uneasy dreams”, the truth arising from it as a “gigantic insect”. The callousness and naturalness of the return to normalcy of the family after Gregor’s death adds to the absurdity of fate.

Gregor’s identity is another important theme of the story. While Gregor listens to Grete playing the violin, the narrator asks ” Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?” Only humans could respond the way the insect responds to her music. Another interpretation is his expression of repressed sexual desire for Grete. Gregor’s “animal state” yearns for the “unknown food“. Some critics interpret this as his repressed physical desires and some as spiritual yearning, one from the human mind and the other from the animalistic body. ( In “The Hunger Artist” he has treated the theme of spiritual nourishment not found on earth and in “Investigations of a Dog“, the spiritual food is made available through music. Kafka’s animals like the horses in “A Country Doctor” and the ape in “A Report to an Academy” has lost the divinity of creation. ) Gregor loses identity as man and an insect, not belonging entirely to any one of these realms, but occupying somewhere in between.

The story is in the form of a three part construction – exposition, conflict and denouement. In each part Gregor tries to break loose from his imprisonment. The first part deals with his professional conflict, the second part with his conflicts to the tense alienation from his family and the third part his literal emancipation or liberation with his death.

A major literary device that Kafka uses in his works is time. In this novella, time changes from precisely measurable units at first to a vague concept later on. When he wakes up from “uneasy dreams” in the beginning, he is fully conscious for one hour, beginning at half past six. Then gradually the clarity fades and time assumes a vagueness like “twilight”, “long evening”, ” soon”, “often”, and “about a month”. Similarly, Gregor loses “his last guideline of direction” when the furniture is removed from his room in the second part. According to Kafka, time is just a concept. The Metamorphosis is hapening outside the context of time.

Lastly, none of the sources or study materials could provide a complete understanding of the novella. We see Gregor,s loneliness and tribulations through a narrator’s perspective. The other characters in the story, Gregor included, does not seem to fully comprehend this. We are unaware of the cause of his transformation and finally has to be satisfied with depiction of fate bowing to an unknown. We feel the loneliness, delusions of love, animals inside humans, unrequited love in the form of sacrifice, absurdities, yet, Kafka’s style is so mysterious, not something that could be grasped that simply.

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders- A challenging read.

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The 2017 Booker Prize winner, Lincoln in Bardo is historical fiction, a bold and intrepid venture by George Saunders. Seemingly an impossible task, this one knocks your socks off in every possible way. 

Set in the backdrop of civil war, Saunders has woven it out of a single thread, an incident in 1862, which to a casual observer might seem inconsequential on the face of it. President Lincoln’s ten-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever and a grieving Lincoln had been reported in newspapers, making multiple visits to Oak Hill Cemetery Georgetown where the boy was interred in a crypt, holding the body on his lap. Building upon this episode, Saunders has framed an innumerable array of ghosts, roving about in a state of afterlife known as ‘the Bardo’ in Buddhist culture, the boy’s ghost one among these. Each one holds on to the belief of their existence and aliveness, fancies a journey back in time to the previous place and is ensnared in dreams not materialized, lust, vindictiveness, redemptive ambitions, compunctions and all those temporal afflictions and aspirations of the earthly-minded.

Hoping against hope, they go on doing their utmost to perennialize their actuality, fighting back the angelic demons and bottling up their own innate urges pertinaciously so as to cling on to that realm. But before too long, they succumb to the irrefutable factual verity of the final exit and break loose from the material realm to a spiritual one, the novel, thus sailing smoothly to its denouement. 

Throughout the course of a profusive avalanche of spirits, the novel subsumes a few mortals, Lincoln one among them, their respective realms amalgamating at times. Saunder’s prose is enthralling and embosomed by magical realism redolent of Garcia’s works. Set in Fournier typeface, the print is appealing, all the more reason to read this one though secondary. 

And to be honest, I loathed it proportionately as I liked it. As much as the seductive prose, polyphonic and spectral, peppered with worldly wisdom to boot, the cacophony was overpoweringly insufferable. I could bear with a few ghosts, but not a whole lot of them. The more you start to get engrossingly near, unwittingly getting teleported to the uncanny dimension, the more cacophonous and psychedelic it turned out to be. In fact, to cut a long story short, the read was cerebrally and spiritually exacting by all means. For all it’s title, the novel is not an exclusive Lincoln story, but a hotchpotch of personified diaphanous shadowy apparitions roaming around Oak Hill Cemetery, ruminating their past, their present and future crisscrossing each other.

While not intending to sound captious in the least, this analysis could yet be taken as one that borders on subjective, this is what I have felt straight from the shoulder.

Still, I am in awe of the author who dared spin such a scenario from a flimsy thread, a roiling torrent of dissonant speechification, of getting carried away in its vortex of magical realism!

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