Title: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories
Author: Franz Kafka
Date Added: June 12, 2017
Date Started: September 14, 2017
Date Finished: December 1, 2017
Reading Duration: 78 days
Genre: Fiction, Classical Literature, Satire, Short Story
Virtually unknown during his lifetime, Franz Kafka is now one of the world’s most widely read and discussed authors. His nightmarish novels and short stories have come to symbolize modern man’s anxiety and alienation in a bizarre, hostile, and dehumanized world. This vision is most fully realized in Kafka’s masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis,” a story that is both harrowing and amusing, and a landmark of modern literature.
Bringing together some of Kafka’s finest work, this collection demonstrates the richness and variety of the author’s artistry. “The Judgment,” which Kafka considered to be his decisive breakthrough, and “The Stoker,” which became the first chapter of his novel Amerika, are here included. These two, along with “The Metamorphosis,” form a suite of stories Kafka referred to as “The Sons,” and they collectively present a devastating portrait of the modern family.
Also included are “In the Penal Colony,” a story of a torture machine and its operators and victims, and “A Hunger Artist,” about the absurdity of an artist trying to communicate with a misunderstanding public. Kafka’s lucid, succinct writing chronicles the labyrinthine complexities, the futility-laden horror, and the stifling oppressiveness that permeate his vision of modern life.
This is going to be more of an analysis than a review due to the classic nature of the work. Spoilers will not be marked.
Most writers write about themselves. It is both an inherently selfish and selfless act. To speak too much of oneself is narcissistic, but to share that self with the world in the hopes someone might understand upon reflection requires a vulnerability most narcissists cannot bear.
Franz Kafka’s works were greatly influenced by his relationship with his father, Hermann Kafka, who is described as “authoritative and demanding.” We’re introduced to this paradigm in “The Metamorphosis,” and it manifests even more in “The Judgment.”
Kafka’s writing is brilliant in its absurdity. While ridiculous and surreal things happen to his characters, the author’s message is far from it. He uses the absurd to speak of the profound beginning with “The Metamorphosis,” where the main character Gregor awakens one morning to discover he’s been transformed into a gigantic bug. It’s interesting to note that Kafka never wanted any depictions of the creature, because its appearance didn’t matter. It was a “gigantic vermin” that poor Gregor had the ill luck to now be. He’s confined to his room and often fed by pushing sustenance beneath the door. The sister or the mother would sometimes and warily venture in to clean, and Gregor usually hid himself to not terrify them. He is unable to speak, no longer possessing a human mouth, though his mental faculties remained the same.
Initially, I laughed while reading this, because upon first consideration, Kafka’s writing makes no sense. Then you realize Gregor’s greatest concern is not that his body is no longer his own, but rather that he won’t be able to make it to work, it starts to seem sadly similar to modern sentiments. How many of us have woken up sick or exhausted, but unable to think about our own well-being due to work obligations and the needs of others? Gregor’s plight is no different. He is the only breadwinner in a house occupied by his parents and sister, and after his transformation, does everything to make them as comfortable with his hideous appearance as possible. It was like the manifestation of an invisible illness where you’ve been shamed into concealing it until such becomes impossible.
Gregor is both abused and neglected by his family who see him as a burden, an extremely hypocritical point of view as he was the sole wage earner in the house. He stops eating, due a combination of resignation, despair, and an injury inflicted on him by his father. It would also not be out of possibility’s realm that he wanted to cease the burden on his family, and because of this, Gregor eventually succumbs.
The father, mother, and sister (and it’s pointed to note Kafka usually refers to them in this way: the father, the mother, and the sister as opposed to his or Gregor’s) have a mini holiday upon Gregor’s demise, proving what a horrible trio of people they are. It is possible they viewed his transformation into a bug as his actual death, and the time he remained in that state as their period of mourning where they cling to the idea of the son and brother now lost, but upon reflection of this story, it becomes a chilling and literal dehumanizing metaphor for disability.
Gregor becomes useless to his family after his transformation. He can no longer work; he can no longer speak, and his appearance could certainly be seen as a disfigurement. He becomes a non-person whose existence is merely a burden upon others, and this motive is constantly found in regards to disability. All sympathy is given to the caregivers who just must “endure.” It’s absolutely abysmal, and while I don’t think Kafka was making a commentary on that, the motifs in “The Metamorphosis” do align.
It’s not until Gregor dies that the author begins referring to his parents as Herr and Frau Samsa, as if now they can return to their life after the “thing” keeping them from it is gone. Gregor is the main character of the story, but he’s not remotely an active participant. The narrative is about what happens to him as opposed to what he does. While the reader has an open view into his thoughts, he’s still more of a side character in the story and with his family. I think this reflects how Kafka felt about his own life, but it also forces modern observers to realize how much of a metaphor this is for how disabled people are viewed and treated.
“The Judgement” is Kafka’s more concise attempt to render his paternal feelings. The character of Georg, through no physical coercion, throws himself off a bridge when his father sentences him to drowning after a volatile confrontation that escalated from something innocuous. Paternal power is potent enough to directly cause suicide, which would have to be considered murder if such was the case.
In “The Stoker,” once more the main character Karl is neither the titular one nor the focal point. Rather he becomes embroiled in another man’s situation, but even after discovering his uncle, a senator, in the captain’s office, Karl remains powerless to assist the stoker regardless of his newfound position. This story seems like another to reflect Kafka’s own feelings of impotence and futility no matter what position he might attain and how he might not have felt like a main character even in his own life. In all three of the stories here, the “main” character always found himself at the whims of others.
“In the Penal Colony” reads as a precursor to Kafka’s later novel The Trial which was written right after. It blends the author’s familiar brand of absurdity with the horrors of injustice. The main character is a traveler who comes upon a condemned man strapped to an torture device guarded by an officer who explains to the traveler how the machine works. The unnamed main character is wholly uninterested until the officer does, and he becomes even more so when he discovers the condemned neither knows his sentence nor that he has been sentenced nor has he been allowed any defense. The officer is the sole judge and executioner, and to him “Guilt is unquestionable.” This story seems to be Kafka practicing for his statement on the nature of (or lack of) justice in society, and the travesty of it becomes even more cruel when we hear of the man’s crime. He was supposed to awaken every hour to salute at the captain’s door and he failed to do so. This is obviously a law for the sake of having a law and could also be seen as a type of entrapment in order to torture and kill those singled out.
The traveler’s understandable disgust is misconstrued by the officer as introspective respect for the penal process. This seems to parallel the communication divide between Gregor and his family in “The Metamorphosis,” even though both characters in this work are more than capable of coherent speech. It could be Kafka’s attempt to show the futility of communication when our expectations and self-centeredness obfuscate what we’re trying to convey. Even plain speech must be filtered through our expectations, and we are so easily fooled by those.
When the traveler says to the condemned, “I can’t help you any more than I can hinder you,” that is exactly the point of the work. Nothing matters. The execution is merely a spectacle of a dying regime. There is no one attending the event even though there have been spaces in the front saved “for the children,” whose purpose is obviously to indoctrinate the younger generation into this form of barbarism.
The story ends with the officer freeing the condemned man and taking his place once the traveler adequately expresses his disgust with the whole affair. Afterwards, the traveler, the previously condemned, and the soldier who’d been keeping guard go to the teahouse where the old commandant, the last relic of this regime, is buried. His gravestone beneath the table bears an oddly Christlike inscription of how he will return. This makes the officer’s “sacrifice” a sort of mock crucifixion, a notion that gains credence in the realization he took the place of the condemned for a ridiculous crime. It’s as though both commandant and officer are desperately attempting to be relevant in action , but because the old regime is not only brutal but pointless, their deaths are as meaningless as the crime for which the condemned man was charged.
Again I think this story was both a transition and amalgamation of Kafka’s thematic representations of his father and his feelings towards justice. These are intricately tied together as even in general father figures are seen as the lawgivers, so the author would not find it a difficult leap to move from one concentration to the other.
Kafka seemed fascinated with the spectacle of suffering seen not only in regards to the penal system, but also with the self-inflicted type in “The Hunger Artist.” Though there are hints of the paradigm in “Penal Colony,” “The Hunger Artist” seems almost equally about the spectacle of suffering and becoming immune to it because it’s “fallen out of fashion.” There are some profound implications in this since there’s empirical evidence indicating we view homeless people as part of the scenery and not as human beings at all. While the artist chose such a fate, he also suffered from the public ignoring his self-imposed torture. Why bother enduring if no one is going to pay attention. Then in the end it’s revealed he only fasted because he never found food enjoyable. If such is the case, is it really a choice? Granted the option to make himself a spectacle is, and Kafka reveals the twist right before the poor man succumbs. He attempted to make a statement with his misfortune, and since the author makes it a point to reveal he spent forty days fasting, it seems the hunger artist should be compared with a more famous martyr.
“Josephine and Singer, or The Mouse People” has a similar motif to “The Hunger Artist” in that a character does something they think will make a statement/be useful, but it has no affect whatsoever. The titular character believes her singing saves her people, and they won’t tell her that it doesn’t. They share a futile co-dependency.
It is easy to pose as a savior to people who are inured to suffering.
There is a decided nihilism to Kafka’s mien. The characters consistently find themselves in situations not of their own making that resist any attempt to change or better, yet in reading this, I never sensed despair, only alienation and futility. His stories have a satirical air as if mocking the very idea of improvement. Things just are what they are. At no point did Gregor believe he would regain his human form, and while the convict in “In the Penal Colony” was freed, the narrative wasn’t about that; it’s focus is on the unjust and irrational reason he was there in the first place. Though the officer takes his place, a sacrifice still had to be made. There is also an air of futility in how the newly condemned speaks of the old regime and how it’s represented in the commandant’s grave beneath a teahouse table. Not only is it futile to fight against injustice, it doesn’t even matter on which side of the penal system one falls. It’s all interchangeable, which is proven in the officer and the condemned switching places.
Kafka was ahead of his time in that many of this themes resonate even today. “The Metamorphosis'” disability/disfigurement metaphor and “In the Penal Colony’s” lack of faith in an unjust system that it seems futile to fight have reached new heights of current relevance. Nihilism may not be an optimistic philosophy, but it has its place in the public discourse. It is futile to try dismantling unjust systems if the individuals that both form and suffer from take them as absolutes.