Monday, 28 September 2015

On the Manifold Transformations within Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis, 1915)

The most obvious metamorphosis in Die Verwandlung certainly comes in the first sentence, the past particle ‘verwandelt’ stopping the reader in their tracks as a lexical intrusion upon reality. In fact, this transformation flouts one of storytelling’s oldest principles: we begin with the climax. There is no greater incident in the entirety of Kafka’s tale, no more dramatic moment, and yet the unravelling of the story still possesses an eerie, hypnotic fascination. Kafka seems to be pointing us to the fact through ‘music dying with a dying fall’ (Eliot) that man starts out already condemned and as such ‘is driven to repeat himself again and again; one can expect neither a gradual crescendo ending in a climax nor a development leading to a catastrophe’ (Anders). In such a context, many other transformations take place in this story, and the subtler, more nuanced and interlayered they are, the more they hold the intrinsic fascination of modernism, of those aspects of reality that do not fit preconceived patterns and ideas.
In order to understand the way in which the Samsa family is transformed, space must first be devoted, of course, to Gregor’s metamorphosis. Critics have expended more time and ink on this question than on any 20th century work, and in Corngold’s eyes ‘Kafka’s commentators must despair of ultimate interpretation, but…they are obliged to be lucid about their despair’. Let us begin, then, with what Gregor’s transformation is not. This is not a nightmare, a word so often (and rather too loosely) associated with the adjective Kafkaesque. Unusually for Kafka, this could not be more explicit: we are told in the story’s very second paragraph ‘es war kein Traum’, and though elements of the story point toward misleading narration or certainly narration from a limited perspective, there are no other indications that this is some extended dream sequence. Emrich, indeed, calls the moment of one of ‘waking [to] reality by a dreamer’. Die Verwandlung is a work thoroughly uninterested in dreams – or at the very least in the lurid kind of dreams with which some have connected Gregor’s ‘nightmarish’ situation. This is a book firmly and squarely about reality; that it aims to tell us so much about reality through the extraordinary, indeed the dream-worthy, is a key part of its appeal.
Arguably, whether Gregor wakes up as an actual bug or vermin worthy of sacrifice, the noun ‘Ungeziefer’ being difficult to render in English, matters little. The fact that Kafka forbade any illustrations of the Ungeziefer indicates not only that no such actual creature as the kind he envisaged exists, but that the actuality of the physical appearance is not the most important key to the horror of the story. The crucial factor is that he is still Gregor, that he retains Gregor’s memory and consciousness (unlike in previous Metamorphoses – say, Ovid’s). He is primarily Gregor the over-worked travelling salesman with few hobbies and prospects. As Anders says ‘in the eyes of the highly respectable, hard-working world he is a ‘nasty bug’ (dreckiger Käfer)’. He is a fictional being who literally exists as a metaphor, and if metaphor, declaring something is that which is not in order to portray a truth of symbolic value, is always a form of metamorphosis, ‘Kafka transforms metamorphosis back into his fictional reality, and this counter-metamorphosis becomes the starting-point of his tale’. The despairing, soul-destroying Beamtenwelt of white-collar workers for which Gregor has so long served has rendered him a kind of parasite. Let us again be clear: there is a horrifying reality about this. It is an Antimärchen, the horrific breaking through into the ordinary in order to illustrate the horrific nature of the ordinary more vividly. If the matter of fact is horrible, then the horrible must be matter of fact, and horror is given a ‘petty-bourgeois cosiness’.
In reality he is the equivalent of a bug; and the metaphorical nature of his transformation is crucial to understanding the family’s reaction, and their transformation in turn. It has often been commented on that Gregor expresses no surprise that he is an insect: his primary thought is ‘vorläufig allerdings muß ich aufstehen, den mein Zug fährt um fünf’. This of course is in keeping with the matter-of-factness mentioned above. But what is perhaps a little more surprising is that his family proceed similarly when they discover an insect in Gregor’s room. It is almost too obvious to point out, but nonetheless worthwhile, that nobody asks ‘where is my brother?’ or ‘has this creature devoured our son?’ Everybody seems to comprehend straightaway that Gregor Samsa is the Ungeziefer, and the Ungeziefer is Gregor Samsa: there is no debate about that. Not only is this a key element of the more metaphorical plane of reality being transformed into solid fact (as argued above), but it is also significant in indicating that the transformations in Die Verwandlung are not so much transformations as the slow bringing to light of that which was already latent (to which I will return).
For the moment, however, we must examine the internal dynamics of the family. Five years before the beginning of the story, the business prospects of Herr Samsa collapsed entirely and Gregor was forced to move upwards and work harder in order to pay off his family’s debts. With his sister a 12-year old child, his father despondent and his mother asthmatic, it was left to Gregor to provide for the family – a role which he, or at least the male patriarch within him, enjoyed, referring to this particular period as ‘schöne Zeiten’. This arduous work forms the backbone of a dull routine life, with little or no social interaction and only minimal romance. Gregor’s bedroom has 3 doors and is located at the centre of the Wohnung, as though he can maintain his surveillance of those for whom he provides.
On the most purely basic level, then, Gregor’s transformation derails this balance into which the family have settled. As the kind of creature he has become, he is quite clearly unfit for work; the family must adapt if they are to survive. Kafka shows this manifest in a variety of forms. One of the most intriguing is Greenberg’s point that ‘as Gregor wanes, his family thrives’. It is as though there is a kind of inter-dependent parasitism between these (and by extension all) family members: where Gregor is capable, the others are weak; but where Gregor is incarcerated, the other three develop an independence from him.
One of the ways Gregor’s relationship with his father is most effectively shown is through the symbolism of the newspaper. For a middle-class family such as the Samsas, the role of reading the newspaper indicates connection with the outside world, of power and of authority; up until Die Verwandlung begins, we hear from Gregor’s mother that ‘jeden Abend…da sitzt er bei uns am Tisch und liest still die Zeitung’. But after Gregor’s transformation we hear that suddenly this role has fallen to Gregor’s father ‘die er bei der Lektüre verschiedener Zeitungen stundenlang hinzog’ – and again in the evening he reads the ‘nachmittags erschienende Zeitung’. The newspaper becomes in the father’s hands an instrument of repression, of seizing power back from Gregor: when he drives him back to his room it is with a ‘große Zeitung vom Tisch’ and, yet more humiliatingly, it is ‘auf einer alten Zeitung ausgebreitet’ that we find the garbage the family leaves for him to eat. (It is also, of course, a newspaper that the ‘Zimmerherren’ take up when in residence – again, a hierarchic symbol of power). The symbolism of the uniform indicates a similar process of transformation – switching from the army uniform in Gregor’s picture on the sideboard to the ‘straffe blaue Uniform’ his father starts to wear (and, significantly, refuses to take off) as he becomes the breadwinner once again. The glee with which the father pelts Gregor with apples (we read that he is ‘wütend und froh’ as he does so) is as alarming as anything in Die Verwandlung, because it is an indication that the close intimacy and harmony of family life is an easily disrupted allusion.
In contrast, the mother remains a frail, insignificant figure throughout, and is usually much more positive towards Gregor (though she does label him ‘hartnäckig’). It is rather with the sister that the most interesting ‘transformation’ is to be found. Where once the brother and sister were tender towards one another, and he aims to provide money for her to attend the conservatory, she develops a childish impulse to look after Gregor as though he were a pet. Gregor sees most of her actions and utterances in a positive light and though we are limited only to Gregor’s point of view through Kafka’s use of Einsinnigkeit, of Gregor as ‘focaliser’, it is pretty clear to the intuitive reader that at the very least no such positive conclusions are obvious. She brings him repulsive food, using a cloth to touch the bowl; throws open the window, rushes out and locks the door. She believes him to be an animal and chooses to move the furniture out of his room so that he might crawl more easily. The incestuous overtones to the scene where Gregor crawls into the living room and listens to his sister playing violin indicate that, in his recourse to animalism, his most basic urges and the need for human contact focus on his sister alone. Whether this is a form of narcissism or not is difficult to determine; but certainly it is indicative of Gregor’s alienation – the only woman for whom he feels anything is of his own flesh and blood.
Thus alienation is reality; humanity is denied us; and ‘what comes to light is that even the most tender relations between people are founded on illusions and cannot survive the rupturing of these allusions’ (Emrich). The harmony of the family was a lie, and Gregor’s transformation shatters this lie. The penury was an illusion, for the father had set aside some sums of money at an earlier date. Gregor’s hard work had been ultimately futile. Therefore, as Edel says, Gregor’s transformation yields not so much transformation in the other characters but a slow unmasking of that which was already a tragic part of their relationships. This relates back to the nature of the Ungeziefer – the creature is an absolute transcendence of the human world and yet it is nothing but man himself; the tragic impossibility of human relation is based on a kind of animalism that is fully, bitterly human. As Emrich puts it, ‘for Kafka what is beyond imagining lies in man himself, because there is no beyond outside him, the parable of this Beyond is necessarily an earthly image [the Ungeziefer] that is at the same time unearthly and cannot be drawn’.
The word ‘Ungeziefer’ comes from the Old High German meaning ‘vermin or creature worthy of sacrifice’, and some have read Die Verwandlung as a story of necessary sacrifice. For the family to be whole again, this argument runs, the transformed Gregor must die for the sake of their rebirth. This is best personified in the sister – ‘as Gregor’s vitality sinks, she blooms’ (Edel) – and in the seemingly optimistic coda. Kafka’s world does not seem to merit such a reading, and this is why the so-called transformation of the family is as crucial to Die Verwandlung as that of Gregor himself. The fundamental inhumanity of humanity, the rupturing of those illusions, may have been quietly shelved for the time being; Grete may seem to be in bloom (or ‘üppig’ as Kafka has it), but there is no reason to suppose a similar familial pride did not surround Gregor when ‘sorgos lächelnd, Respekt für seine Haltung und Uniform verlangte’. In other words, the family (and by extension, all families) are bound on a course to repeat themselves. The lie of humanity is still a lie.

Beicken, Peter, Erläuterungen und Dokumente: Franz Kafka – Die Verwandlung, Reclam, 1998.
Corngold, Stanley, The Commentator’s Despair: The Interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis
Port Washington, 1973.
Kafka, Franz, Die Verwandlung, 1915.

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