Monday, December 10, 2018

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The bug in all of us
The basic idea of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis is notoriously easy to summarize: A salesman wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Capitalizing on this bizarre plot element, most cover designers for the book tend to make it look like a horror story, but The Metamorphosis is actually more of a black comedy. Despite its brevity and deceptively simple premise, Kafka’s narrative bears a philosophical depth and psychological complexity that has inspired much debate among literary critics over the past century.

The Metamorphosis is not so much about the metamorphosis itself but rather about the characters’ reactions to it. The biggest surprise is the relative nonchalance with which everyone deals with this hideous transformation. Gregor Samsa, the salesman in question, spends very little time fretting over his six legs and chitinous exoskeleton and immediately begins worrying about matters pertaining to his work and home life. His mother, father, and sister experience a brief initial fear when they discover the big bug, but they never fail to recognize the insect as their loved one and very quickly begin to think of him as an inconvenience rather than a horror. As Gregor gradually becomes accustomed to his new bug body, the family struggles to deal with the fact that their primary breadwinner has been incapacitated. The whole narrative takes place within the family’s apartment, which makes it feel like an absurdist stage play along the lines of something from Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett.

Many literary scholars smarter than myself have analyzed The Metamorphosis backwards and forwards in order to elucidate its hidden meanings. From the humble perspective of this general reader, it seemed that Kafka was satirizing the effect on family dynamics when one member becomes an inconvenience, an embarrassment, or a source of shame to the others, whether through mental illness, physical invalidity, or the nonconformist breaking of a social convention that causes the offender to take on pariah status. Gregor’s insecthood is a symbolic representation of one man’s intense feelings of inadequacy and alienation in trying to fit in with the rest of humanity in the modern world. In this existentialist tour de force, Kafka masterfully walks a tightrope between tragedy and comedy, resulting in a work of gallows humor that is multi-layered, immensely thought-provoking.

Like much that Kafka produced, this groundbreaking protomodern classic had a pronounced effect on literature and pop culture to come. Though now over a century old, it still feels surprisingly fresh and doesn’t fail to shock with its sheer bizarreness. The big bug in the room is more than just a gimmick; The Metamorphosis proved an unexpectedly profound and unforgettable read.
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