Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book review--The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

One morning, poor Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself inexplicably transformed into a hideous, human-sized insect.  What are his first thoughts?  Not, "how did this happen?"  Not, "what is happening to me?  Will I die?"  His chief concern is "how am I going to get to work?" (paraphrase)
It is that sentence that best exemplifies Kafka's uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the early 20th Century.  Existentialism, the literary and philosophical movement of which Kafka was a part, was a direct response in many ways to the modern human condition of being a drone (nice insect-like term :) ).  We are free to make our own choices but are everywhere in chains by this reality.  Of course Gregor's first thought is about getting to the office. We're all slaves to it in one form or another.
But Gregor needn't have worried about getting to work as his boss comes to him, wondering where the hell he is.  Gregor lives with his parents and his sister.  They too are concerned as to why he had yet to emerge from his bedroom.  Upon opening the door, they say the least...shocked.  The boss assures the Samsa's that Gregor won't be needed that day and hastily exits.  The family then turns to caring for Gregor, all the while feeling repulsed by him.
The heavy symbolism continues.  Gregor is set apart from his family and the world at-large.  Everyone gradually distances themselves from him, even his dear sister.  He is so different that no one can find an easy means of categorization for him.  And that makes him odd...and not to mention scary.  Towards the end of the book, point of view shifts and we learn that the family had various rationalizations for their feelings as well as misplaced expectations of Gregor...things he could never have known.
This is classic existentialism.  We are all trapped in our own reality as no one can ever truly know and understand what it is like to be us.  Therefore, each of us in our own way is alone. Gregor's transformation to an insectoid form is just an overemphasized symbol of that fact.
Many people assume that it was a cockroach that Gregor turned into even though Kafka never states so in the text.   I am among those people and as I am writing a satirical piece about cockroaches, I turned to this book.  Author Valdimir Nabokov had an alternative take on this.  Since it is never explicitly stated that Gregor is a cockroach, Nabokov asserted that Gregor was not and that he had wings beneath his hard shell.  Therefore, Gregor could have flown away at any time if he only knew how.  Or made the choice to.  This brings us back to notions of free will and choice, which have deep literary and philosophical implications that I am unable to fully explore within the space here.
This book is a fixture in the Western canon and it is rightfully never out of print.
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  1. So, you think this Kafka guy is going to have much of a career? The concept sounds kind of iffy. I can see some definite problems in Act II.

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  3. All depends on his marketing strategy and if he can get James Patterson to blurb him.

  4. From Facebook, Spike said: I really enjoyed this essay! I remember reading the story in my first semester at Saint Joe for "Intro to Fiction."