Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

I'm aware that I don't really talk about short stories here at the Arsenal. When I do it's usually an anthology or collection of short stories, which you usually want to talk about as a whole rather than individually. Or at least that's my inclination. In this particular case I feel like The Metamorphosis has actually given me something to talk about in a blog post beyond, “It was good. I liked it.” (Which sadly often is what it boils down with some of the stuff that I really like.) The point is after I had finished The Metamorphosis I had an idea strike me as a potential interpretation of this story. Of course, I'm aware this is probably in no way an original interpretation of the story but it gives me something to write about so I'm going to write about it.

The plot of The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor Samsa, traveling salesman and provider for his family, suddenly being transformed into a monstrous vermin. My particular translation chose cockroach but the point is he's turned into a giant, undesirable creature. The how or why of course is never explained, instead the story focuses on the actions of Gregor and his family in reaction to his sudden and inexplicable transformation. His father, mother, and sister Grete are all required to get jobs to provide for themselves, a burden previously shouldered by Gregor, as well as deal with the embarrassment of their son. Their situation continues to decay until Gregor's death, which the family receives with great joy and hope for a fresh start.

What I found interesting about this story was the fact that it could be used as a metaphor for the struggle of an invalid in a family. For example, rather than being transformed into a giant bug, perhaps Gregor was paralyzed by an accident while traveling, or was struck down by a debilitating and terminal disease such as cancer. Gregor is immediately secluded in his room by his family, cut off not only from the outside world but from his family as well. Gregor's father out and out doesn't wish to have anything to do with Gregor and removes himself entirely from Gregor's presence. Gregor's mother wishes to see him and tend to him, but herself is restrained by her fear of his condition. It is only Gregor's sister Grete who finds the courage to face his condition, and even then only in an indirect manner rather than head-on. (But more on that in a minute.) Considering that the culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to hide or seclude anything that didn't conform to its standards is it really that surprising that Gregor was hidden? This is the culture that gave us disappointment rooms after all.

The Samsa family's emotions regarding Gregor's condition is also an excellent example of a family dealing with a member who has been suddenly and tragically disabled. Gregor's mother initially remains in denial about his condition, hopeful that everything will return to normal soon. (An almost ludicrous prospect considering his transformation into a bug.) Grete, however, responds to Gregor's needs with enthusiasm, making sure he's well fed, cleaning his room, and trying to make his life easier in general. As time goes on, Gregor's condition fails to improve, and the family makes more and more sacrifices because of Gregor's condition, Grete's opinion towards him continues to decline. Eventually Grete is satisfied with only the most perfunctory cleaning of Gregor's room and discarded odds and ends that there is no room for elsewhere join him, including the trash. The family comes to resent Gregor and his condition, the hardship that he's put them through, and the conviction that they'd be better off without him. When Gregor finally dies there is no grief from his family, only relief.

Of course we all hope that if we, like Gregor, were struck down by random chance then our friends and loved ones would be far more understanding and accommodating than Gregor's family. However, the tragic truth of the matter is there are plenty of anecdotal examples of people being fed up with the burden of disabled relatives, seeking only a release from this inconsiderate imposition. The Metamorphosis, much like one of my all-time favorites The Twilight Zone, paints a modern issue in a fantastic light, and challenges us to think about what we would do in a similar situation. If you haven't read this short story yet, I'd highly recommend you do. Of course, I can't guarantee your interpretation will be the same as mine!

- Kalpar 

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