I read The Metamorphosis under great duress during both high school and undergrad. I remember despising it both times, and only reading enough to get through class discussion. But my mentor is teaching it this semester, and I’ve had no choice but to revisit it. It’s amazing how much perspective a decade and a half can give. I loved this novella, and aside from general immaturity and lack of language skills, I don’t know why I was so vehemently against this story in the past. Gregor the beetle is the most pitiful, sad character on the planet, and for most of the story all I kept picturing was an adorably sad pill bug with little feet and a hunched back weeping by himself looking for love…..as was Kafka’s point.
Poor Gregor Samsa is a young, overworked traveling salesman in turn-of-the-century Europe who wakes up one morning to find himself ostensibly transformed into a giant dung beetle. Kafka gives no explanation for this. There’s no world-building or reasoning for this occurrence in which perfectly healthy young men find themselves entrapped in the bodies of large insects. And yet, as readers, we just accept it. Kafka keeps the frame of his story small – never leaving the Samsa family’s apartment – as well as staying in a very close third person to Gregor. Kafka chooses specific language that both gives us the impression of the scuttling insect, but humanly captures Gregor’s emotions and feelings. The juxtaposition is purposely uncomfortable and heartbreaking as we watch Gregor’s family detest him more and more as the story progresses to its predictable end.
As I ruminated on this, it occurred to me that there are historical layers to this story that were probably lost on me the first two times I read this. The turn-of-the-century was, for the most part, disgusting, and vermin/bugs of all kinds were an inescapable part of being poor. The Samsas are a family fallen on hard times trying very hard to keep up appearances of their middle-class life. To have their house suddenly infested with an enormous beetle on top of losing their sole breadwinner, is a harbinger of the poverty they’re trying so hard to avoid. The environment Kafka creates also mimics this. The longer the family denies Gregor’s transformation, the cleaner the apartment stays, and the more middle class the family appears. But as they begin to accept their fate, their care for Gregor diminishes, turning to the depression and despair that accompany financial ruin. Meanwhile, Gregor can only ruminate on his own situation, scuttling about his room and generally trying to be accepted by his dismal family in his new form, of which of course, they never will.
It’s poignant and sad, and actually fairly accessible for something written in the nineteen-teens. It may actually make me go find some other Kafka.