Hi, friends. Today’s book is short and bizarre but is considered a Modernist classic.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis (published in 1915) tells the story of an inexplicably curious ailment that Gregor Samsa wakes up with one morning–he looks down to realize that he has transformed into a beetle. As a hard-working salesman who supports his whole family, Gregor needs to find a way to return to his normal self, but he has no idea what to do.
The initial events are weirdly humorous because Gregor’s mindset is pragmatic; once he figures out how to turn his unfamiliar body and get off the bed without injuring himself, he’ll get dressed and run down to the train station; though he’ll be late to work, he’ll apologize profusely. Of course, Gregor doesn’t get that far.
His family panics once they see what he’s become, but they can’t communicate because Gregor can’t be understood. Over the next few months, Gregor loses his humanity little by little as he spends 99% of his time alone in his room. The Samsa family must adjust to and endure living with Gregor the beetle until the problem finally gets fixed.
As with most Modernist art, much of the meaning here is enigmatic and symbolic. Having read it twice now, I interpret that many situations in this novel symbolize/reflect “the Modernist struggle.” When I use that phrase, I refer to the changes brought by the technological Industrial Revolution (factories, urbanization) plus WWI disillusionment.
For example, when Gregor wakes up as a beetle, he’s concerned with getting to work rather than questioning the supernatural ludicrousness of his metamorphosis. That extreme pragmatism in response to insanity could reflect people working their tails off just to survive back home while countless young men engaged in the first global-scale war at a point in history where the world had seemed to be progressing rapidly and endlessly. That’s just my assessment, though. 😉 I’ll stop before I accidentally write a literary analysis essay.
The Metamorphosis was originally written in German; the original title is Die Verwandlung. In the German text, Gregor refers to himself as ungeheures Ungeziefer, which translates as “monstrous vermin.” How exactly to translate that phrase has been a concern in capturing the precise image Kafka wanted. Insect? Bug? Beetle? Cockroach?
Interpretations of this work vary greatly. Many use a religious, psychological, or sociological lens to examine its meanings. Others have suggested a father complex, and some have pointed to the mirroring between Gregor and his sister Grete.
In the film The Producers (which is hilarious), when Bialystock and Blum search for “the worst play ever written,” Bialystock reads aloud the first sentence from the book–“Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.”–then tosses the script aside, saying “Nah, it’s too good!”
The term “Kafkaesque” means “characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.”
Thanks for reading! Have you read The Metamorphosis? How do you feel towards Modernist art? Admittedly, I’m dismissive of a lot of it because the line between abstract/symbolic/minimalistic/bizarre vs. being a poor excuse for art gets fuzzy with Modernism.