Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Relatability of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis


I read the Joachim Neugrochel translation of this work.


Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was published in 1915. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young salesman who one morning wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a monstrous, bug-like creature. The balance of the tale concerns itself with the way in which Gregor and his family cope with the metamorphosis.

There is something about this story that fascinates people. I find that people both in real life and online tend to become very interested when this tale is mentioned.  Many folks who have not read it seem to be familiar with it. There are so many popular culture references to this tale ranging from MTV shorts to Mel Brooks movies to serious musical compositions. There are many film versions out there.

Why is this strange and quirky yarn so famous? Why does it seem to fascinate so many people? I think that there is something in this story that many people find very relatable.

This is a narrative of a person facing inescapable and absolute horror; responding to it as best he can in stoic way. Gregor is living a nightmare beyond compare, yet he does not respond to it as such.  He has been transformed into something that elicits disgust. There is no escape from it. Making matters worse, his family, the only people that he can count on, begin to show hostility towards him and begin to neglect him. All this time, Gregor is inwardly calm, as he tries his best to deal with the situation.

At one point, he tries to contend with an itch and experiences something that might drive someone else to madness,

"Feeling a slight itch on his belly, he slowly squirmed along on his back toward the bedpost in order to raise his head more easily. Upon locating the itchy place, which was dotted with lots of tiny white specks that he could not fathom, he tried to touch the area with one of his legs, but promptly withdrew it, for the contact sent icy shudders through his body. He slipped back into his former position."

As the above passage illustrates, instead of succumbing to insanity, Gregor just continues on and tries to cope the best he can. He always remains calm. When his family begins to turn on him, he does not react with outrage or even despair. This is despite the fact that in the past he made great sacrifices for them.

I think many people can relate to Gregor’s predicament. Life is full of horrors and injustices. War, genocide, famine and poverty are very real horrors that affect so many people. Even those who are shielded from such misery must cope with things like the death of loved ones, pain, disease, petty injustices meted out by those around them, as well as many other ills.  Most people accept these things with relative calmness and try to go on. As is the case with this story, observing what other people endure sometimes makes us scratch our heads in wonder that others can accept such things. Even those who spend their time fighting wrongs, and stranding up for themselves make compromises. Even the most fractious of us pick our battle and end up accepting many of the world’s evils. In a way, there is a little Gregor is many of us.

There are many reasons, other than those highlighted above, that people are drawn to The Metamorphosis. This is a fascinating story filled with intriguing characters. It is full of meaning and symbolism that is open to varying interpretations. Even in translation Kafka’s prose style is quirky, creative and interesting to read. In addition to all this, I think that many people find something to relate to in its pages.

45 comments:

R.T. said...

That's a superb analysis. Whenever I read the story, I felt like Gregor because I spent much of my life as an outsider who didn't fit in with others. That, I think, is the message. That, I think, is how Kafka felt. But perhaps that's too simple.

JoAnn said...

Your post has me wondering why I've never taken the time to read The Metamorphosis. It's on my kindle now... thanks for the push.

Fred said...

Brian--excellent commentary. The story is wide-open for a variety of interpretations. I once read a Marxist interpretation of it.

thecuecard said...

I think I read Kafka's story in high school so it's been many many decades but I recall it being a pretty compassionate portrait of this man as a bug. Gosh it's a freaky icky circumstance he endures, but it's hard to turn away from and yet you feel for Samsa. I think it could have many interpretations. The movie The Fly sort of took that metamorphosis idea ... it's so gross & bizarre that you have to look.

JacquiWine said...

I think you're right about the relevance of this story. I remember reading it when I was in my twenties, fresh out of university to the mysterious world of work. It's one of those books that almost everyone can relate to - a little like Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener.

Mudpuddle said...

anger is fear... Kafka's writings epitomize a point of human psychology: the feeling that relationships are basically impossible and undependable at best... the feeling that we are always alone... that we might as well be cockroaches, crawling through the traps and snares of existence... it's not really paranoia, it's more like perceiving the unrelenting drive of evolution....

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian:

One of the things that stood out to me was, whatever happened to Samsa, it is the same as if something happened to us that made us repulsive and an outcast to others.

Maybe some tragedy or anything that others, not even family members want to deal with. They are all relieved when he finally dies.

Of course, many of us, myself included, have families that would stick with us no matter how much it burdened them, and Samsa's tried but it was a burden and it also by association made them outcasts no matter how hard they tried to hide Samsa's condition.

I think everyone on a certain level can empathize with feeling alienated and isolated at some times in our lives.

James said...

I have written about Kafka and about writers who have written about Kafka, but despite several readings of "Metamorphosis" I have not written about it. In some ways it is like The Trial and other of Kafka's short stories in its demonstration of irrationality and alienation. But it has the reaction of the family for the reader to identify with (if he so chooses).
As an outsider (to some extent aren't we all -- those who consider the big questions of life) I can attempt to identify with Gregor's alienation, but for myself I reject it. Kafka has always puzzled me with his exquisite imagination and the seemingly extreme irrationalism he describes.
Thanks for your well considered comments on this confounding contribution from Kafka's genius.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon. You raise a good point. Samsa is someone like someone whose family has found him impossible to deal with. I also have a family that would stick with me and I would stick with them. we are indeed lucky.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - Though there is a lot going on in this story, I think that your reading of it is on target.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Joe Ann - I think that you would like this. If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Fred. There are indeed many interpretations of this work. Some seem a bit off the wall.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I agree, it is hard not to feel sorry for Samsa.

I have not seen either version of The Fly in years. Both are disturbing. I never connected the films to this story, but now that you mention it, there are parallels. I remember finding both versions disturbing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I really need to read Bartleby the Scrivener.

So many of us first read this when we were young.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I think that you described the essence of this story so well.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I feel similar to you, I have felt alienation but never to the degree that Kafka describes. With that, I can see how some people, in some circumstances, might feel this alienated.

Maria Behar said...

Another EXCELLENT review, Brian!

I must confess....I totally dislike this book. I did pick it up once, but put it down after only a few pages. I realize that this metamorphosis is a metaphor for the many evil things you mentioned in your review. However, I could not get past the fact that Samsa was transformed into a BUG. And the first bug that comes to mind is....well, I can't bring myself to type out the full word....a CR. I'm sure you know exactly which buy I'm referring to. Lol. I HATE these bugs with every fiber of my being!! So no, I couldn't bring myself to read about a human being transformed into one of THOSE.

I realize that Kafka is considered a great literary master. Some time back, in addition to this novel, I also attempted to read his unfinished work, "The Castle". That attempt was an exercise in futility, as the book just became too frustrating and uncomfortable to read, after a short while. I never finished it, which is a rather ironic thing to say about a novel whose author never completed it.

There are horror novels of the Stephen King type, which depict monsters and horrible atrocities. There are horror novels of the Edgar Allan Poe type, which depict psychological horrors. Then there are novels like the ones by Kafka (I'm not sure if there are other novelists in this category, or Poe's, for that matter), which depict horrors of another type -- existential ones. These, along with the psychological horror novels, might be the worst of all, for they involve horrors of the psyche. They leave a sense of nausea in the mind and soul, an inexplicable SOMETHING that strikes at the very core of our human existence. It's a chilling view of that existence. No wonder Sartre called his most famous work, "Nausea"!

Being of the very sensitive type, as you know, I am unable to read such works. Not to be melodramatic, but they strike terror into my heart. So, no matter how masterful the metaphor, I simply cannot take these novels.....

Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! Hope you have a GREAT Friday!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria. It is a difficult story to read in some ways. In the translators notes for the edition that I read, the translator believed that a correct reading of the original text did not indicate the type of bug that Samsa was transformed into. There is apparently some disagreement about this.

Existential horror is the perfect term for many of Kafka’s works. He really dug into something terribly dark in the Universe. I can see how works like this would be too disturbing. Some books are too disturbing for me these days. Though it is a slightly different true of darkness that gets to me.

In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti wrote about how horror stories touch something terribly dark inherent in the Univese. He explores the points you make in great detail.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian. You give us so much to think about in your reviews. As you say, life contains tragedy and sometimes horror and a man waking up as a bug is extreme but a metaphor. Very bad things can happen to people out of the blue and while there are family and friends who will stay with the person, people either go back to their own lives or flee in fear that this might happen to them. What a fascinating nan Kafka was and I haven't even read him yet.

Fred said...

Brian--chuckle,

off-the-wall commentaries are just what an off-the-wall story requires.

Fred said...

Brian--I've read the same thing, that Kafka never specified the type of bug Samsa became.

Other excellent short story writers in horror field are Algernon Blackwood, MR James, and HP Lovecraft. All are low on the gore factor, which is why I like them.

James said...

One translator I encountered used the word "vermin" in the first sentence of the book.

Fred said...

I just checked my copy, The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, and since no translator is listed, he's probably the translator also. In the first sentence Samsa wakes to find himself "a gigantic insect."

Brian Joseph said...

From the introduction to my edition of short stories by Joachim Neugrochel .

He also uses the word "vermin".

"Ungeziefer means “vermin,” not “insect,” which is either Insekt or Kerbtier in German"

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - I love Lovecraft. I also like horror that is low in gore. Thanks for the recamemdations.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. This was indeed an extremely metaphor.

Kafka was interfered very interesting.

Fred said...

Brian--look for Algernon Blackwood's short story, "The Willows." That's my favorite.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

I am one who never read this and I didn't realize the man-turned-bug is such a thoughtful, poignant character. Thanks for a wonderful commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Laurie - If you gave this a try I would love to know what you thought.

Harvee@Book Dilettante said...

This reminded me of the human condition, our frailties in getting used to things unusual so much that they no longer affect us as much.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - You put it so well. There are so many trials and difficulties that are a part of life. In a way, literature like this is an attempt to grapple with such things.

baili said...

man is though has brain which is most POWERFUL thing in this universe but his physical powers are very limited .

turning into something which enhance your power to execute life more authentically and gives you a chance to use it for bettering and helping others is quite exciting and thrilling.

Powers come with great responsibilities and conflicts .i liked the attitude of main character who stayed calm and did not be destruction for any.
very interesting story Brain ,thank you for sharing!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - I agree, it is very beneficial to oneself to have self control of one's own mind. It is interesting that Samsa was a great help to his family before his transformation. Afterwards he was a burden to them.

Kate Scott said...

I've never read Kafka (mostly because I've been told his work is so depressing), but your post makes me want to read The Metamorphosis. I think I might have a copy of it squirreled away somewhere...I'll have to check.

Suko said...

Excellent commentary (as usual), Brian Joseph! It is a classic and certainly worth discussion. I read (and reviewed) this story a few years ago on my blog. I would like to see a movie version of this story before too long.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - I found some of Kafka's stories a little depressing. However, There is an absurdity to many that tamps down on the grimness.

The Metamorphosis is short so it should not take too much time if you gave it a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. Though I think there may be some film versions already out there, I do not think that there are any that are considered great.

I think that Tim Burton might do a great job with it.

Tracy Terry said...

Wow! What a wonderful understanding you have of this book/character.

I think you are right in the comment above when you suggest Tim Burton might do a good job as I think he does characters that are outwardly often seen as ugly/odd with a great deal of understanding.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy.

I think Burton would also do a great job with the weird and dark imagery and visuals.

HKatz said...

I really like your observation about how to varying degrees we have to make compromises with the world (even in the objects we use, knowing that a lot of it is made under cruel labor conditions, but for instance where do you find a computer that's made ethically every step of the way?)

Also, I read this story a while ago, and one of the most chilling aspects was the family withdrawing from him once he's outlived his usefulness. That's a secret fear of many people as they get older or if they develop a disability or serious psychological problem, and as you say, while some people are lucky to have a family who will stick by them, many people don't.

I also vaguely remember at the end that the parents turn their full attention on the sister and notice that she's reached an age where she's eligible for marriage. Will she then be undergoing her own metamorphosis soon of marriage and pregnancy (which for some women works out well, and for others not so much at all)?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Indeed, if one follows every injustice down to its roots, it will drive one mad.

I think you are on to something with the observation about the sister, metaphorphasis and marriage.

Fear of family abandoning is a real fear for so many folks.

Emma said...

Perhaps it speaks to us because it's a common fear, to live in a body that you can't control, to be dependent on your family and not to be able to interact with the world.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - You raise a really good point that I barely touched upon. Some of the horrors that we encounter in this world involves are own bodies. This gets at the heart of this story.

The Bookworm said...

Great post Brian. I need to read The Metamorphosis, I have it in my stacks. I read a short story that was based off of this book before and I remember it being uncomfortable to read.
How sad to think that his family turns their back on him. I think The Metamorphosis might fascinate so many people because people tend to be inquisitive, especially when something bad happens, like rubber necking while driving past a car accident. It's hard to look away.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Metamorphosis is very short so it should not take you too long if you gave it a read.

Folks do have a fascination with the very bad. Rubber necking is a good example.