Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Some notes on Kafka's Metamorphosis

Part I --

* Gregor Samsa, as we all know, wakes one morning from "uneasy dreams" to discover that he is a giant insect -- he goes from "uneasy dreams" to a nightmare that is no dream at all.

* Gregor's metamorphosis is not, however, the only one. No sooner does the story begin than we see another one. On Gregor's wall is a picture he has cut out of a magazine and framed: a woman swathed in fur -- fur cap, fur stole and a fur muff "into which the whole of her forearm had vanished." In other words, she is becoming something else -- an animal, and Gregor's own bourgeois ideal. There will be other metamorphoses as well. In fact, although it is not announced until much later, Gregor's own transformation from man to insect happens during the Christmas season, the time when we celebrate God becoming man.

* Discovering you have been transformed into a dung beetle over night will ruin anyone's day, but it is not Gregor's main concern. His main concern is that he is late for work.

* Gregor Samsa entered the working world the way a lot of people do: necessity. His father had racked up a number of debts, and Gregor became a salesman with his father's firm to pay them off. He became quite the success; within a short time he is a commercial traveler -- part of an envied and hated lot within the firm whom are known for their huge expense accounts and lack of accountability. This is not, however, true of Gregor, who is nothing if not diligent. He has never missed a day of work; indeed, he is a workaholic. He gets up at 4 a.m. to catch the 5 a.m. train and usually knocks out a few sales by the time his competitors are sitting down to breakfast. When he has leisure time, he reads the paper or railway timetables -- everything about him spells "work." Today, as he lays in bed rolling about in his corrugated straitjacket, he is painfully aware that it is already 6:30 a.m., and that if he's lucky, if he can get this big ugly bug body up and dressed, maybe he'll make the 7 am train.

* Of course, it isn't long before his mom and dad are on him; his sister, Grete, sits alone in the room to his right, crying for no obvious reason to Gregor or the reader. The family lives off of Gregor -- he is their sole means of support and they have all gotten very, very used to the fact. They are naturally concerned about him missing work and they bang on the door to get him moving. Unfortunately, Gregor's voice has a "persistent horrible twittering squeak" that makes communication impossible. Also, quite as Gregor expected, the chief clerk at his firm shows up when Gregor fails to arrive at work.

* The incapacitated Gregor is, as we like to say, "in denial." He chalks up his aches and pains to overwork, his voice to an on-coming cold. Surely being a bug is nothing you can't overcome with a little elbow grease. Gregor of course has his work cut out for him as the family and chief clerk are outside the door pleading with him to open up. By refusing to talk to them, he seems quite obnoxious. He ultimately manages to get up, clasp the door key in his grinding bug jaws and open the door. The result is a horrific farce: everyone is stumbling over themselves to flee the very sight of Gregor, who with adroit workaday initiative is trailing after the chief clerk, helplessly pleading his case in his trademark cacophonous squeak.

* One of the many amusements of any great story on a second or third reading is that new levels open up. With Kafka's story, there are sexual elements that seem glaringly apparent with each new reading, particularly in Gregor's relationship with his mother and sister. We learn in Part II that Gregor is very close to his sister and that he planned to send her to a Conservatory to study the violin shortly after Christmas. What is particularly noteworthy is the sister's growing attractiveness; Gregor thinks that maybe she, in the room next to his, could have used her feminine wiles to keep the chief clerk from running off. There seems to be here an Oedipal triangle that has as much to do with incest as insects; an emotional menage a trois from which the father has been cut out and to which he will soon restore his place. It is the father who chases Gregor back into what will become his cell -- his lonely bedroom with his writing-desk, couch, and chest of drawers.

Part II

* Despite his initial resistance, Gregor comes to grips with his own buginess. Milk, once his favorite drink, now repulses him. He wants rotting food. He also likes crawling under the couch, and he's generally given up on the two-legged life.

* The family is also adapting to their own metamorphosis, from a fat and sassy family to a tight-fisted and closed one. They are left alone as the household help departs. Even the cook leaves, which is just as well -- everyone has lost their appetite.

* Grete cares for her brother a good deal more than the parents -- it is she who brings him slop and tries to keep the room the way he wants it, even though she never stays long and cannot bear the sight of him. Although the family has long thought of her as useless, she becomes the conduit between Gregor and the parents. She, too, is metamorphosing -- into the creature that will ultimately save the family unit.

* As Gregor can no longer communicate, all he can do is hear what the family says about him, which he does by listening at the door of his bedroom, which opens out into the living room. He learns that the family still has a small number of investments which have earned dividends, although hardly enough to live on. The family's thriftiness makes Gregor happy. Still, the family is going to have to forge its own way. The father, who hasn't worked in five years, becomes a bank messenger; the asthmatic mother sews underwear, the sister becomes a salesgirl who takes night classes in French and shorthand.

* Gregor takes to crawling all over the walls, and Grete has the idea of moving out his furniture to give him the run of the place. The mother thinks maybe this isn't best, maybe it indicates they are giving up hope of their boy ever getting "better." There is a struggle between mother and daughter with the latter winning; Gregor himself is divided between them. Physically, he would love to have the room emptied, but mentally, he still clings to his human past, and he has a sentimental attachment to his furniture.

* The close of the second part is one of the mot interesting sections of the story, as it very neatly weaves together the incest angle. First, Gregor scares his mother and sister from the room. He is on the wall, crawling on his beloved picture in order to save it, so that mother and daughter re-enter to walk in on a sort of reverse primal scene, mother watching her son coupling with another beast: Gregor "pressed himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly." The father arrives and Gregor, quite cowardly, shrinks from him; his father can kill him and he knows it, and he wants his father to know he is obedient, "to let his father see as soon as he came in from the hall that his son had the good intention of getting back into his room immediately and that it was not necessary to drive him there." The father pelts Gregor with apples, one of which lands deep in his soft back. The mother rushes toward the father, her loosened petticoats falling to the floor, embracing her husband "in complete union with him." The father has restored his place as the head of the household. Where the father was once slow and lazy, now it is Gregor who, thanks to the apple injury, will be the invalid.

Part III

* With the apple stuck in his body -- soon to rot and cause an infection -- Gregor can no longer crawl on the wall. The family, too, feels trapped by Gregor ; they are overworked, tired-out, poor. They want Gregor to become a thing of the past. The family feels utterly hopeless, chained to this thing, this beast, not unlike a family may feel chained by an elderly or disabled family member. All Gregor can do is dream of what was and what can never be again. He is trapped physically but also psychologically.

* Although Grete pays less attention to Gregor, she still jealously guards him from the mother. When the mother cleans Gregor's room, Grete gets upset. This is played out in very Freudian terms, it seems to me, with the father standing to the side getting frustrated.

* New people enter the house. A charwoman takes an interest in Gregor and does not find him intimidating -- if anything, it's the other way around. The family takes in three boarders, to whom they become toadies. The boarders eat in the dining room while the family eats in the kitchen. The boarders are real neatniks, and the family starts using Gregor's room for trash or storage. The father has Grete play her violin for the gentlemen, as if she exists only for their amusement; the father is clearly interested in Grete's marriage potential. But while they are indifferent to the strains of Grete's violin, Gregor is like Odysseus charmed by the sirens -- he is irresistibly drawn to it. "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" Gregor's desire for his sister is equally strong -- he dreams of keeping her in his room as his loving companion; he imagines telling her that he had plans to send her to the conservatory, and seeing her burst into tears, and kissing her neck.

* It is difficult, at this point, not to come up with a comically profane image: Grete being ravished by this gigantic insect. There are any number of reasons as to "why" Gregor becomes a bug: the insect is a manifestation of one becoming what he is not, of living like an faceless insect and so turning into one; and there is the fact, too, that the Samsas are themselves an insect-like race, feeding on this or that host, devoted to the solidarity of their little hive. There seems to me, too, a possibility that Gregor feels like a beast in the way he desires his sister.

* The three lodgers, who notice his appearance and immediately make a fuss, interrupt Gregor's reverie. They don't seem revolted, exactly -- more likely, they see a good chance for a shakedown, as surely no one can be expected to pay money to live in the same house as a giant bug.

* Grete takes charge; the "creature" in Gregor's room must be gotten rid of. The father holds out some hope that Gregor, the Gregor they knew, would understand the family's predicament. Gregor returns to his room; Grete bolts it. He dies peacefully, feeling love for his family. The charwoman discovers his body the following morning. The Samsas are relieved. Grete notices how thin the corpse is -- did Gregor starve himself to death? Mom, Dad, and Grete retire to the parents' bedroom. The lodgers come into Gregor's bedroom, and Mr. Samsa throws them all out.

* And so, the Samsa family troubles are over. The three take the day off from their crummy jobs. The charwoman lets everyone know she has got rid of Gregor; just bringing up this most unpleasant of subjects earns her dismissal. Mrs. Samsa and Grete hold each other -- when Mr. Samsa feels left out, they bring him in to their little circle. He isn't odd man out anymore -- he's an object of affection, replacing the son who replaced him. The group takes a trip to the country on this sunny day. As they ponder their prospects, Ma and Pa Samsa see how their remaining child has "bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure." Will that ripe young body attract a husband? Can they feed off him they way they fed off Gregor? Yes, the future looks bright indeed.

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