Thursday, April 20, 2017

"The Metamorphosis" (1915)

Read story by Franz Kafka online.

Franz Kafka's long story is impossible to categorize. It's hardly science fiction, and while it is a fantasy it's not exactly in the fantasy genre either. Here's what we know: Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman who lives at home and is the main support for his parents and younger sister. One morning he wakes up and finds he has become a giant insect (or something, depending on translation and/or connotation, see also the Guardian article below). There is no explanation for this, let alone theoretical basis. It simply happens. Samsa is humiliated and mortified, and his family is horrified and repulsed. It's not a comic tale even if its premise is a little comical (or grotesquely horrific, depending on your inclination). In fact, it's the pathos in this story that always kills me. It's one of the saddest stories I've ever read. Kafka is particularly good here at thinking his way into an insect's view. His description of the insect's legs, how they are useless when it is on its back but perfectly functional when it is flat to the floor right side up, feels right, even the (slightly disgusting) joy and pleasure he describes at being able to move (from everything in the story, dung beetles seem most likely to provide the right image). Similarly, Gregor learns he can climb on the walls and ceiling (not really sure about the physics of this, but anyway), and he enjoys these feelings too, though the sticky pads at the end of his legs leave stains. Yuck and more yuck: cheese going bad is his favorite food. He doesn't care for anything fresh. So that's all good and creepy, but this story works best when it focuses on the anguish. In one scene, crudely trying to control Gregor's movements, his father throws apples at him. One of them lodges in Gregor's back. It's a fatal wound but does not kill him immediately. His sister feeds and cares for him, but she is repulsed like the others. He tries to hide out of sight to spare her when she's in his room. We also see evidence of the family's financial troubles. The father has to go back to work in his old age. They must take in boarders, who are understandably upset when they learn about Gregor. The stress on the family is killing them. They stop believing the large insect is Gregor, exactly, but they can't let go of it either, and so they enter a limbo of pain and confusion. The ending is as sad as all of it—more so. It's hard to know what to do with this story, except to check in on it regularly and maybe cry a little bit.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir

Guardian: "Kafka's Metamorphosis and its mutations in translation"

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