I first read The Metamorphosis in high school. No, it was not assigned reading. I read my father's copy during Geometry class. Suffice it to say I didn't have a future in engineering. I could tell that the story symbolized something. I just wasn't sure what. I didn't know that Kafka was Jewish at the time, but since he was from Eastern Europe, I concluded that the protagonist represented Jews during Nazi- occupied Europe. It made sense. Here was a group of people living their lives like everyone else. Going to work, raising their families, getting along with their neighbors, even had good friendships with non Jews.
Each Jewish person in Germany, and later throughout most of Europe, must have had a moment in time when they realized that they no longer belonged to the whole. They had been cut adrift. Had, in fact, turned into something as repulsive as an insect to the rest of society. A society they had belonged to as a vibrant, productive member. Kafka's short story seemed to be telling this story through allegory.
Yet when I recently read the story again, I discovered that Kafka had actually died during the 1920's. His work was published in 1915. He wouldn't have known about the rise of Hitler or the dark spell he cast across the European continent. Perhaps it's just as well. Not too many years later, the rest of Kafka's family died in concentration camps.
Gregor Samsa is a hard working young man who struggles to provide for his family. He has no wife or children. He is financially supporting his father, mother and a sister. His hours are long and he is often away from home. Yet he is devoted to his family and willingly toils away.
One morning he wakes up to discover that he is some kind of giant insect. He no longer can work and his family is horrified.
As the story unfolds, we witness his parents overcoming their initial fear, and developing a sullen resentment against Gregor's plight. At first his sister shows compassion but she too, eventually neglects him. We come to understand that Gregor was working hard to pay off a debt his father had accrued. Furthermore, we find out that there is no reason for his father not to work, he simply refuses to and expects Gregor to provide. This Gregor had been willing to do until his present predicament. The reason for his family's outrage and resentment against Gregor is that he is no longer useful.
Eventually, Gregor starves to death. His family is relieved, go out, get jobs of their own and carry on with their lives.
One feels pity for Gregor, who never seems to resent his family's attitude but only regrets that he is no longer able to help them.
This leaves the reader with a number of questions. Why was Gregor so submissive to such a selfish father? Why did he enable his indolence? Why did he never wake up to the fact that his family never really cared for him, had no respect for him?
I read some of the biography that this edition provided and I form the conclusion that Gregor represented Kafka and he put into parable form his perception of his relationship with his father. In one letter to his father Kafka wrote, "My writing was all about you..."
This seems evident in some of the other stories included in this collection.
The story is mostly told in third person/limited from Gregor's viewpoint. We know Gregor's thoughts- how he feels about his discovery, his reaction to others' words and actions, how he learns to cope with his new body- this enables the reader to vicariously experience Gregor's life. We learn to empathize with him. His suffering becomes our own.
After Gregor dies, the narrator switches to omniscient. We see how the rest of the family reacts to his death and how they continue on. Perhaps, we feel a certain amount of relief with them but I found it hard to respect them.
Kafka, needless to say, belongs to the genius class of writers because the reality he creates resonates with our own reality. His work may be fiction but it is still our life story as well. Our world, our plights and- for some people- a hopelessness in existing.
Each story in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories is so intriguing, I will have to write separate reviews for the "other stories" in future posts.
I bought this book.