April 22, 2016
This April, a group of students, staff and friends of Harrison Middleton University discussed Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The following thoughts were compiled by Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, from the input of all of the participants. It was a wonderful conversation!
The Metamorphosis centers on Gregor Samsa and it begins: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” And that’s just the first sentence. Samsa (and an omniscient narrator) continue, for the rest of the story, to offer opinions and details of his family, his environment and his past, all while locked in his room, in the shape and skin of a large cockroach.
Instead of being horrified at his own appearance, Gregor responds to the change calmly. He says: “At the same moment, however, he didn’t forget to remind himself from time to time of the fact that calm (indeed the calmest) reflection might be better than the most confused decisions.” And then he decides that he’ll try to open the door to the family room and gauge their reactions to see how he himself should react. Kafka writes, “He was keen to witness what the others now asking after him would say at the sight of him. If they were startled then Gregor had no more responsibility and could be calm. But if they accepted everything quietly, then he would have no reason to get excited and, if he got a move on, could really be at the station around eight o’clock.” Gregor bases all attempt at self-reflection upon his family’s observations. The tight, constrained and controlling environs of his room make for difficult reflection, especially in the shape of a large bug.
Quickly, Gregor realizes that he has no idea how to move his many legs and thick abdomen. He struggles in bed and comes to the conclusion that he should call for help. But the idea sounds ridiculous to him. He says, “Now, quite apart from the fact that the doors were locked, should he really call out for help? In spite of all his distress, he was unable to suppress a smile at the idea.” What is it that makes Gregor smile? Possibly he finds it ridiculous that helpless people who depend upon his financial support should actually try to help him. Is he laughing at their utter ridiculousness, belittling them when, in fact, he is the one who has become a cockroach? Or, has Gregor become the thing that HE most abhors, which he finds ironic and slightly humorous?
Then, Gregor’s manager arrives, wondering where his employee is. Gregor attempts to get out of bed and, of course, he falls. The noise startles the manager and he says, “Something has fallen in there.” Though Gregor knocked himself down and made a loud noise in the process, he also has fallen: fallen from esteem, from grace, from the bed. He has simply fallen. Is Gregor most worried about having let down his manager, his family or himself? The narrator interjects: “Gregor tried to imagine to himself whether anything similar to what was happening to him today could have also happened at some point to the manager. At least one had to concede the possibility of such a thing.” Despite his horrifying physical appearance, Gregor cannot make out his own character. Instead, he relies on the reactions of others. With this question, though, Gregor allows the narrative to include everyone – even the reader. Is it possible that we may someday turn into the thing we least desire? Gregor thinks that one must concede the possibility.
This story begins long before Gregor turns into a bug, however. It actually begins with the father’s failure to make enough money to support the family. Gregor, then, assumed all family debt. It appears that Gregor did not enjoy his job, his responsibilities, or his coworkers. He rarely socialized and spent more time in his room than elsewhere. Gregor became stuck on the idea of responsibility and the family became accustomed to Gregor’s financial ‘care’. However, the family relationship devolved into one of convenience and monetary support. From there, unhealthy dependences grew. What was once convenient, necessary and appreciated devolved into mere responsibility, like a monetary transaction. Perhaps this is why the family never questions whether or not the thing inside Gregor’s room is, in fact, Gregor. Wouldn’t it be more plausible to think that the bug perhaps ate Gregor? Yet no one asks this question. Instead, they react with horror, and eventually, disdain. No one, not even Gregor, asks for a reason. They merely accept it as true.
It is important, however, that Gregor feels trapped. And so does his family. We learn: “Gregor later earned so much money that he was in a position to bear the expenses of the entire family, expenses which he, in fact, did bear. They had become quite accustomed to it, both the family and Gregor as well. They took the money with thanks, and he happily surrendered it, but the special warmth was no longer present.” What is it about growing accustomed to something that also allows it to lose value? Gregor rescued the family in his own mind, in his own way. It just happens that nothing in his own mind is actually rational and his own way left a lot to be desired.
An example of problems in the family’s relationship arrives when Gregor’s sister and mother decide to move furniture out of Gregor’s room, ostensibly to help him move around. He thinks they are too weak and frail. Clearly, he has always thought this and his superiority is palpable. Yet the women do move everything. He continually underestimates his family and thinks them incapable of difficult tasks. The sister took to taking care of Gregor, though she hated it. He notes that she walked into his room “on tiptoes, as if she was in the presence of a serious invalid or a total stranger.” After she begins with such care as trying to figure out what he would like to eat, he determines to be ‘less sensitive’, and it is for this reason, perhaps, that he has donned the roach-like appearance, the thick shell.
The family lived with the bug-like Gregor for a long time. Why no one left, why Gregor never escapes, is indecipherable. The mother kept hoping for Gregor’s return. Gregor casually mentions changing shapes again too, as if to change forms is always possible. It is unclear who controls the shape-shifting: fate, one’s own mind, a supernatural being? It is possible, however, that denial and hope can assume the same form. By denying the permanence of this current form, Gregor (and his mother) gives into the idea that we can simply change back. This denies the present experience and yet also, ironically, offers hope for the future.
The ultimate irony arrives at the moment when Gregor’s sister begins to play a mini-violin concert for her family and the lodgers. Clearly, she enjoys playing, though she lacks any ability. Gregor listens from within his room. He feels less like an animal as the music plays. This allows him to rationalize that since animals are not able to appreciate music with such spirit, therefore he is not an animal. Fully absorbed with the music, Gregor moves into the living room where everyone notices him and they all freeze. As a result, the lodgers decide to leave without payment and the sister decides that Gregor is no longer worth protecting. The sister demands that the family get rid of Gregor. Of course, Gregor is still listening. Though this was Gregor’s attempt to show genuine appreciation and love for his sister, her words leave him unhurt, unfazed. Instead, he simply and slowly turns around to go back into his room. Gregor’s next thoughts are of complete contentment. And then he dies at dawn. Released from their burden, the family determines to move immediately. The father and sister have jobs and everyone seems relieved.
However, the story’s final sentence leaves many questions for the reader. The enigmatic words read: “And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey the daughter first lifted herself up and stretched her young body.” This sentence is a complete inversion of the opening scene, in which Gregor (a young and healthy salesman) attempts to stretch in his bed only to discover that he is a bug. It is hopeful that the family has new dreams and good intentions – but the reader is unclear on how these are different from the pattern established by Gregor, who also had good intentions to fulfill the dreams of his family. He failed. But who is to say that the sister will succeed? Having said that, Gregor chose to make decisions for his family believing them incapable of work. He belittled their existence while supporting it and enabled them to an idle lifestyle.
It is important to note that Gregor is not evil, selfish or mean. He truly believed that he was acting in the family’s best interests. Yet, Kafka portrays the absolute disintegration of love and relationship in this story through Gregor’s unreflective eyes. The reader is left perplexed, undecided as to whether this pattern will repeat. Perhaps the family (now with love and compassion and, hopefully, communication) will be able to make a better life. Again, the irony appears that the family can only regain happiness (or attempt it) once Gregor has died.
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