Oct. 27, 2005

The Cockroach Novella?


The first line of Franz Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis” is among the most recognizable and well-known sentences in English today, and like much of Kafka’s work, the story itself has received hundreds, if not thousands, of interpretations and analyses. But ask the average person to summarize the plot and he’ll almost inevitably reply with, “Oh, that’s the story about the guy who turns into the giant cockroach!” or some equivalent thereof. This is a bit unusual, considering that the story’s Bohemian-born author never actually refers to his character as belonging to any particular entomological order or family. In fact, the first word used to describe Gregor Samsa’s new body is not even “insect,” but “vermin,” and the story’s original German title, “Die Verwandlung,” most literally means “The Conversion.” Admittedly, almost all foreign works inevitably lose something in translation. But is it not ironic that “The Metamorphosis” should be misunderstood, considering that its main character (and possibly even its author) may have experienced similar problems? Personally speaking, I make no claims to be an authority on Kafka, but I get the impression that perhaps he has left his story as open-ended as he did so that people might be more inclined to draw their own conclusions and insights. Neither I nor anyone else who reads a composition can force upon a writer or his work any ideas of “what the author really meant”; here, the best I can do is try to see this work, and what may have helped to inspire its writing, within the context of the times, particularly some of the movements, developments and changes taking place.

Historical Perspective

Originally written around 1912 and first published in 1915, the story in some ways seems to be a reflection of, and perhaps an attitude toward, the changing European society in which Kafka found himself. However, I might add something to this viewpoint: I believe the story can be seen as representing not just a particular point in time, but also emblematic of a more broad, overall reaction to modern times.

Put a different way, one of my goals in writing about the story is to give emphasis to some of the events that were shaping European society and establish some connection to Kafka’s short story. However, the other objective I have is to show that an understanding of Kafka doesn’t have to be limited to his era—the turn of the 20th century—but rather that we can look at some of the author’s apparent feelings and see a bigger statement or outlook about the contemporary world.

Having said all of this, I now turn to some of the actual events that I intend to discuss in relation to Kafka. In doing this, I would like to consider some elements of Kafka’s style. Suppose we consider how the story is structured: It begins with an absurd statement—namely, that a man is now an insect or vermin of some undefined species. The narrative voice deftly proceeds with the storyline, describing every detail and situation with such logical, realistic and unadorned prose that the reader is almost asked to discount the fact that the story is based on an impossibility.

In stating this, I am emphasizing one of the reasons that I like to see this piece as reflective of ‘Europe in transition.’ In one way, I believe I can see some influence of the Victorian era in Kafka’s writing, inasmuch as the strangely austere atmosphere and stark realism of the story remind me of the rise of the realism movement in the 19th century.

I see another side to his style, one that certainly does not belong to the realm of old-fashioned realism—the deeper meaning of the story. That there is something to analyze is clear; exactly what the answer is, though, is something we may never completely figure out. James Wilkinson’s Contemporary Europe textbook sees Kafka as belonging to the so-called high culture of the 1920s, placing Kafka alongside other such modernist writers as Woolf, Mann, Proust and others (182-3). Perhaps that is a more accurate explanation than I can give. Chronologically, “The Metamorphosis” predates the modernist literature movement by more than a decade, but he and his story do not belong to the Edwardian era of literature, as his emphasis is on the internal ‘workings’ of characters, not the “accuracy of external description [and] dramatic plots” (181).

At this point I am grouping together the remaining major movements of Europe that I intend to discuss. The focus will be on socialism and capitalism, and similarly, how the story can be seen as relating to the proletariat (and the bourgeois, to a lesser degree). I don’t agree with some critics that the story was written entirely based on Kafka’s own family; he was born into a middle-class family, while Gregor Samsa’s family clearly lives on a meager amount of money (for some time) after the son’s transformation.

If we recall, prewar Europe (in the “Bella Epoque”) was at its zenith in art and fashion, but that same period was also marked by the rigid class system that continued to exist and was now becoming more apparent. Wilkinson reminds us in the textbook that the timeframe of 1900 to 1914 was the “golden age of European democratic progress” (21), but that there were exceptions—the three eastern empires of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, which “still stood firm for imperial prerogative and class rule” (22). This point is made because Kafka was born in Prague—still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. Again, he was not born into the proletariat class. But, as explained by Charles Neider in his introduction to the Short Novels of the Masters anthology, Kafka’s use of the job theme in his writing arose at least in part from “his own necessity to work, at cost to his creative activity.” So Kafka, it seems, would have reason enough to align himself with the anti-capitalist ideals of the socialism movement, which sprung (in part) from the 19th-century Industrial Revolution (Wilkinson 18), and no doubt the Second Industrial Revolution helped to carry it.

Kafka’s apparent dislike of capitalism and industrialization also show up in “The Metamorphosis.” Neider describes the “physical influence of [Gregor’s] employer” as being part of the characteristics of a European society that is paternalistic, despotic and that only allows “slight fluidity between social classes” (47). If we take one perspective regarding the story as a whole, it’s about a man who on one hand is liberated from his obligations to work and support his family, but who becomes useless to his family, which has become ‘parasitic.’ We get plenty of evidence that Gregor hates his job as a traveling salesman. He says of it:

What a job I’ve chosen. Traveling day in, day out. A much more worrying occupation than working in the office! And apart from business itself, this plague of traveling: the anxieties of changing trains, the irregular, inferior meals, the ever changing faces, never to be seen again, people with whom one has no chance to be friendly. To hell with it all! (537-8)

Gregor hates his boss, as well, whom he describes as “[speaking] to one’s employees from such a height” (538)—in other words, the boss talks down to the employees. We can see just how much of a toll the job takes on Gregor; when the manager pays a visit to see why his employee has not yet arrived, the mother defends Gregor, saying that he never thinks of anything except work, never goes out and just quietly does things around the house. But the manager is practically deaf to claims of depression or illness, stating that “We businessmen must often […] get on with our jobs and ignore our little indispositions” (543). The boss speaks through the manager, and they represent all that is wrong with capitalism. It’s dehumanizing, isolating and uncaring; everyone is treated as either being able to help make a profit or useless. Because Gregor’s family treats him similarly, we may in a sense understand that they are equated with capitalism as well—or at least the effect it has on people.

 Again, Gregor’s job has taken its toll on him; when his father’s business failed years ago, they began to depend on their son to support them, but so much so that they gradually forgot that he was even their son, a human being. Everyone begins to suffer a similar fate when they take jobs; they experience a communication breakdown amongst themselves. With the role of working man stripped away, Gregor looks at what does remain of him, and finds that underneath it all, he has little concept of identity. (Why, even when he discovers himself a vermin, his first thought is only whether he will be able to catch the morning train to work!) That is why so much seems more and more foreign to him, until the very end.

Story’s End / Personal Reflections on the Story

But what does happen at the very end? The family, now working once more, is actually heartened by the death of the son, save for a brief period of mourning. Is the ending of the story meant to be an optimistic note? I would argue in the negative. Read the story’s conclusion a different way, and it sounds like this: ‘Ever since our son turned into an insect, he was useless; now, though, he’s out of the way and no longer a burden on us. We’re more financially solvent now, we see a bright future ahead of us, and our daughter is turning into a beautiful young woman.’ In other words, now they are free to live the aristocratic, upper-class life, completely freed of the ‘crushing’ pressure of their son’s existence. They may have turned toward the sun and enjoyed a very fine day, but I see it as all the more reason to interpret the ending as an unsettling one. The only one who has emerged with his humanity intact is the son, who, near the very end, is moved by Grete’s violin music: “Could it be that he was only an animal, when music moved him so?” (571-2) The answer is clearly no. Having discovered some sort of feelings for art and even of love for family that he seemingly never before knew, Gregor is more a human in insect form than he ever was before.

By not allowing ourselves to be driven by capitalistic ideals, Kafka seems to say, we become free. In a modern, money-driven society, one in which everything seems both alienating and confused, we lose our own sense of who we are. I really don’t know if I could say anything more beyond this, at least not without being redundant. Kafka’s story is certainly much, much more than “a guy who turns into a cockroach.”

I don’t know if my interpretation is an accurate one, even a decent one; what I do know is that I am appreciative that Kafka didn’t try to offer an “easy out” by explaining reasons in his story. We should draw our own conclusions. Otherwise, if we simply have all of our thoughts and opinions made for us, what difference is there between us and the societal mindset that Kafka seems to oppose? And as for Kafka himself, many say he felt quite like an outsider for most of his life. The question remains: Is Gregor Samsa supposed to be Kafka’s fictional vision of himself? To that end, I simply do not know.

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Short Novels of the Masters. Ed. Charles Neider.
New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1956. 537-79.

Wilkinson, James, and H. Stuart Hughes. Contemporary Europe: A History. Upper
           Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.