Last year, my goal was to read a biography of every president. Well, I failed. I read 15 biographies (but two of George W. Bush). That goal is still in play this year, however.
But my I’ve also given myself a new goal: to read more literature. I generally focus more on sci-fi/fantasy and history, and have found myself woefully inadequate in other areas. I’ve never read Jane Austen, or Tolstoy, or William Faulkner. I aim to remedy that in 2016.
On it’s face, Metamorphosis is a simple tale. Gregor Samsa is the center of a family unaware of it’s own turmoil. His sister is still a child, his mother is crippled by asthma, and his father is a broken man unrecovered from a financial crisis. He awakes one morning to find himself turned into a grotesquely chitinous animal – typically described as a cockroach or beetle.
The novella takes place wholly within the confines of the family’s apartment, and begins with the morning of his transformation.
It’s a surreal and absurd oddity that is no less captivating for it’s impenetrability. For all the nauseating repulsivity of a man turned into a chittering beast, this to me feels more a story of wanton self-loathing. Gregor never questions his fate, and his family abhors him without quite casting him out. I think this is the element that people are referring to when they call something “Kafkaesque”: a protagonist subservient to an irredeemable and oppressive force that may, in fact, be above reproach.
I’ve never read Catcher in the Rye, and the more adolescence recedes from me, the less appealing that book becomes. But being someone who has had a more than casual lack of appreciation for himself, I think Metamorphosis is a story that would have appealed to me when I was younger. While I’m old enough now to not worry so much about my own worth, I do think there’s intellectual merit to pondering our tendency to think we’re better than we probably are. In a way, I think Metamorphosis is an invocation of Rousseau’s amour propre; that we see ourselves through the lens of other people’s perceptions. Gregor serves as a counterpoint to Holden Caulfield; he not only doesn’t represent alienation and rebellion, he gives in to the perceptions of others and agrees with them. He is a monster, and doesn’t shy away from that.
It’s an inarguably bleak and austere perspective to take, and loses none of it’s tortured depth over its last century of publication.
And I found it utterly compelling.