This story is a true classic by one of the greats. In this book, Franz Kafka delivers a story like none other. The story represents mastery of both the simple linear story and the deeply complex psychological fiction. This book has been studied so thoroughly that there isn’t much I could attempt to add. I mean, I am pretty sure that any course surveying literature will at some point at least touch on Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. So, I am not attempting to enlighten any of my readers with any startlingly original interpretations. I just want to share the impression with which the book left me when I recently read it. Obviously, I wasn’t a literature, or creative writing major.
The story is very linear. No particular bells and whistles or plot twists. Travelling salesman and sole financial provider to his elderly mother, physically disabled father, and younger sister, Gregor Samsa, returns to his family home after work and has his normal family meal. Then he goes to sleep in his little room and awakens transformed into a hideous human insect. And that’s all anybody really needs to know. The plot follows interestingly similar to that of any story you would expect to hear about a nuclear family caring for one of its members who has contracted a terminal illness. I hate to say it. It’s sad to say. But that was what struck me about the story. Although the story is pure fiction and summarily unbelievable, I found it profoundly similar in its nature to the reality of dealing with a family member’s terminal illness.
Gregor Samsa transforms for completely and totally unknown reasons. However he never seems to question what might have brought about his unfortunate circumstances. When he wakes up and realizes what he has become, his only thought is of how best to deal with his job. He contemplates how will explain his grotesque appearance to his bosses while simultaneously never questioning how he came to be transmorphosed in the first place. He never actually thinks about it outside of the context of his job. He doesn’t even think of how he might get better. How he might be cured. He only thinks of workarounds that might make it possible for him to keep his job. It’s like when a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Many caregivers and patients report that at the time of diagnosis they think of very mundane things like ‘Who is going to pick up Tommy from School on Thursday is that’s when I am supposed to have my Chemo then? ‘ or ‘How soon can get back to playing intramural soft ball?” But beyond that I thought his demeanor that first day was just incredible. Not once does he think about himself. He thinks only about his job and his family. A person would naturally find a strong nobility in that. However, I have come to think of it as an act of fear on his part. I believe he was afraid of losing his position in the family. His father, mother and sister doted on him. And naturally, I am not saying there was anything wrong with it, he took pride and gained confidence from being the families bread winner. But when he transformed and could no longer do his job he realized that he would lose that special position within the family.
This first point gets to the heart of the impression the book gave me. This book is all about family dynamics. And as the story went along that was all to which I was able to pay attention.
The mother was fairly steadfast in her reaction to the metamorphosis. She was, of course, disgusted and heart broken by the grotesque creator that her son had become but you could see how deeply she mourned for him. She tried to join in her daughter’s attempts at care giving for her son but she was too heartbroken and likewise of too light a constitution to truly be of any help. I don’t find that odd at all. Many parents have that sort of reaction. They find it difficult to bear all the suffering that the very child they brought into the world is going through.
The sister was the most dynamic character in the novel. She starts off being the primary and really the only care giver for her transformed brother. Her intentions I found honest throughout the story not unlike the mother as she and her brother shared deep and sincere care for one another. But her thoughts behavior and thoughts toward him eventually evolve. ‘Naturally’, I might add. She starts off feeding him. It is never said but it is implied that she even grows in her empathy toward her brother’s new insect form. She began to change how she fed him. Choosing to give him more insect appealing foods as well as trying to better organize the room for his new body. She does this until she notices the toll that his circumstances are taking on their mother and father. At that point her thoughts behavior toward him changes greatly and she moves toward convincing them to move on with their lives and let him go. She tries to convince them that the insect in the room in not Gregor Samsa but something different. Gregor Samsa is dead to her eventually. And that is when she lets him go and changes her attitude toward the insect with Gregor’s face.
Within the story she changes so much. At first she was the little sister that Gregor took care of and who seemed to have a somewhat difficult relationship with her father given that she wanted to do a course of study of which her father did not approve. Again, Gregor was her champion in this. He intended to send her to school to do music. Later on she takes a job and handles all care giving activities necessary for Gregor the insect. And then she becomes the member of the family that is relied upon. And then after that she is the person who moves on. She is the person who comes to the definite conclusion that this Gregor is not her Gregor. I have read a few things that suggests she just grows cold to his plight because of the stress it places on her. Basically calling her a shitty sister. But when I look at it in the context of taking care of a terminally ill family member then I think there is room for empathy. There comes a time when terminal illness begins to weigh on the family and when there is no hope that a person will improve people generally tend to get worn down and resentful. I know I sound awful. But that is a reality for some people. Some people don’t have that empathetic gene that gives them the wherewithal to endure those kind of things. Sure, everyone likes the warm and fuzzies you receive when you assure yourself that they would have it but reality can be harsh. I think she grows and to some extent she may have been right. Gregor doesn’t speak very much of himself and his feelings about his transformation but you get the strong sense of his suffering. Even if his greatest sufferings come from not being able to be the person he was to his family previously.
The only character that I view harshly is the father. No other way to say it other than a prideful douche bag. I can’t view him any other way. If you read the story you will see. As soon as Gregor became a human insect he began treating him like a beast. The only emotion he expressed about his son was that of embarrassment. And as soon as Gregor disappeared he moved on to doting on his daughter. It must be mentioned that the relationship between he and his daughter seemed strained at the beginning of the story. Definitely due to her and Gregor’s wish for her to go to art school and study music. He only shows interest in her artistic abilities when the tenants they rented a room to expressed an interest in hearing her play. This is similar to the way he doted on Gregor while he was working but instantly turned on his son the second he was no longer the breadwinner. And this is made even more evident when on the train ride out of the city when they leave the family home. The final scene is the father looking at the daughter and noticing that she has transformed into a person worthy of his pride. The words say it differently but that is basically the way I interpreted the final scene.
Gregor’s initial reactions to his transformation are heart warming. But you can even see that he begins to resent his sister’s transformation. It would be easy to say that the true metamorphosis of which Kafka writes is that of the sister. It may well be. I haven’t given that very much thought really. Because the only way I was able to internalize the story was through the prism of a family trying to cope with becoming care givers to a member with a terminal illness.
Honestly, the story is a captivating story. But it is most captivating to me when I think or it in regards to terminal illness. I know there are other ways to view the story but this way grabs me most. I think to myself. The son wakes up with a terminal illness. Family members cope with that illness in different ways. The victim at first thinks nobly, only of the family and then begins to resent his situation. The family eventually tires of endless care giving with no prospect of a change. And then, when the person dies, or disappears or whatever in this case, they feel a sense of relief and freedom to go on and live their lives with a reformed family dynamic. It’s not pretty. It’s neither right nor wrong. That is just a reality that all too many people will come to grips with. I think I am better than that. And I would like to think I would have what it takes to care and love until the bitter in with nothing but the well being of my loved on at heart. But I have never quite been in that situation so I can’t say what I haven’t experienced. But I have read a lot of papers and interviews with care givers and psychologist to know that Gregor’s family did not react outside of the norm to his metamorphosis and that naturally the family itself would have to go through a metamorphosis of its own to continue in his absence.
Only one question though. Why the hell did they give up on finding a cure so quickly? I do judge that. Regardless of the time and any psychological profiles, I do judge that.
Have a read. It’s more than what I said it is. That’s just the way I internalized the story. But it is an amazing narrative worthy of its title as a literary classic.