Kafka on the Go: Rereading ‘The Metamorphosis’

April 25, 2014 | 4 books mentioned 11 min read

I had a simple plan: to peruse a novella repeatedly and in different settings, an experiment in reading during which I would surrender myself to what Edgar Allen Poe called that “fullness of [the author’s] intention” best experienced in a “brief tale.” All I needed was the right book: familiar yet strange enough to offer surprises during the third, fourth, and fifth readings, all within days of each other.

I had been casting about for the perfect title when I saw Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis at an airport bookstore, the beautiful cover submitting the title letters to the same transformative process as the book’s protagonist undergoes. This, I decided, would be my companion text as I semi-reclined on a plane, lay in bed, sat in a café, strolled upright in a park, and bellied up to a bar.

That The Metamorphosis is manifestly about change appealed to me for a project about repetition, though I had no expectation that reading it repeatedly would effect any such dramatic metamorphoses either in me or my literary judgment. Nor did it. Rather, this is a record of the adaptation of a reader’s focus to his different environments.

The Story
Gregor Samsa, whose “particular zeal” allowed him to rise “almost overnight from petty clerk to salesman,” awakens after “troubled dreams” to find himself transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect.” Gregor’s more immediate concern is that he has slept through his alarm and missed his train. (What one chooses to worry about in Kafka is always telling.) Having the misfortune to work in a “firm where even the most negligible falling short was enough to arouse the greatest possible suspicion,” Gregor is visited by his incensed supervisor, whose immediate arrival is in a way no less far-fetched than Gregor’s metamorphosis.

The family accustoms itself to Gregor’s transformation. His sister Grete, whether from “childish frivolity” or jealous protectiveness, takes over the caretaking duties. Each Samsa returns to work to relieve the family of the “ancient debt” incurred by their father.

Meanwhile, Gregor slowly wastes away, eating and sleeping less and less, his movement hampered by an apple that his irate father had hurled at him and is now lodged in his back. Household staff quit, a charwoman and three eerie, bearded lodgers arrive — a new, financially necessary infestation. A final confrontation convinces the family that Gregor must go, a mandate to which Gregor eventually submits when he obligingly expires. Relieved and empowered, the Samsas expel the apartment’s intruders and take the day off work to go on an outing: the first time the novella strays from the apartment. Gregor’s, sister, her parents notice, has blossomed into a young woman.

Kafka at 35,000 Feet:
I started my experiment on board a Boeing 767. This setting seemed particularly fitting as nothing in modern life makes one feel quite as verminous as air travel: the cramped confines, the mixture of docility and entitlement, the accrued filth of travel, and food scarcely fresher than the rotten offerings supplied to Gregor daily.

I had sacrificed the aisle seat to my wife and slunk into the middle seat, then cravenly ceded the armrest to the stranger on my right, as this was certainly what Gregor, a creature of excessive considerateness (some might say servility) would have done. Thus hemmed in, I waited for the plane to reach cruising altitude before reacquainting myself with Gregor’s plight.

Gregor, I noticed, gets into the most trouble when he puts himself on display. Gazing longingly at the dividing curtain in the aisle, I was tempted to imitate one of Gregor’s ill-advised, visible breakouts and display myself — in my full, coach-stinking monstrosity — to the first class passengers. I was moved by the same resentment Gregor felt toward the lodgers and imagined myself making a similar complaint: “Just look at how these [passengers] take their nourishment while I was wasting away.” Alas, I stayed seated, merely contenting myself with visualizing the back of my seat as its own “carapace” that would defend me from the repeated kicks from the child behind me.

As I was in a good position to appreciate, The Metamorphosis dramatizes a fight for and division of a limited space: how much space one takes up, how much one cedes, how much one feels entitled to, and how quickly, and in what manner, one navigates that space — aged bipeds and many-legged bugs alike have trouble getting around. Before the transformation, Gregor is a creature familiar with tight spaces, spending his salesman days on the road in “cramped hotel rooms” and at home in his “proper human room, if admittedly too small.” (Asides like this last one reveal the peculiar mixture of self-denial and resentment in Gregor.) Once he becomes an insect, his room affords him only a “few square meters of space” over which to crawl, and so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of his sister, he takes to squeezing himself under a settee, “where even though his back was a bit cramped and he could no longer raise his head, he at once felt right at home…”

Some flashes of rebellion and resentment notwithstanding, the generally pliant Gregor accepts his straitened quarters even as his family comes to suspect him of new territorial ambitions: “But now we have this beast tormenting us; it drives away our lodgers and apparently intends to take over the entire apartment and have us sleep in the gutter.” When, late in the novella, Gregor is drawn into the “immaculate” parlor by his sister’s violin playing, it is the last violation of the domestic space he is permitted. He dies that night, and his sister finally notices how little space he actually took up: “Just look how skinny he was.” This moment of pathos quickly gives way to irony, as the Samsas, rid of their desiccated charge, look forward to relocating to a “smaller…more practical flat” over which they will have complete dominion.

Outraged on Gregror’s behalf, I reclaimed the armrest in a small act of solidarity, clinging to it as zealously as the beleaguered beetle clings to his cherished picture frame when Grete and her mother attempt to remove it from his walls.

Kafka after Dark:
I adopted a more Proustian posture for my second reading. After all, Gregor’s metamorphosis starts in bed with his “supine imaginings.” Startled and only half awake, he examines “his curved brown belly segmented by rigid arches atop which the blanket, already slipping, was just barely managing to cling.” Clutching my own sheet, I saw in that heroic blanket the whole drama: Gregor’s own doomed quest to cling to a human past. Gregor will later drag his own sheet to cover himself — a painstaking labor that “cost him four hours” and speaks to the all-too human shame that remains with Gregor in his beastly form.

After the initial uncovering of Gregor’s monstrous body, it would take a spreadsheet to keep track of the Samsas’ various states of (un)dress. Gregor assumes that his sister is absent the first morning because “she must have just gotten out of bed and not yet begun to dress.” The first time she does visit him in his room, she is “almost completely clothed.” His father could previously be found “sitting in an armchair in his nightshirt,” but now he wears a “smart blue uniform with gold buttons” at all times, a uniform which eventually becomes as soiled as Gregor’s filthy shell. Gregor fixates on his mother’s “unfastened skirts slipping one by one from her waist” as she hurries to stop his father from killing Gregor with the apple assault. She has taken a job in a dress show, “sacrific[ing] herself for the underclothes of strangers.”

As for Gregor, his most beloved possession is a framed magazine ad picturing a lady “in a fur hat and fur boa who sat erect, holding out to the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her entire forearm had vanished.” His former romantic interest is a girl who worked, naturally, in a haberdashery. And in Gregor’s charged fantasy about his sister, he pictures her visiting his room, and kissing “her throat, which, now that she went to the office every day, she wore free of ribbon or collar.”

There are erotic or Oedipal explanations for the novella’s obsession with clothes, but it is also elegiac. Why wouldn’t Gregor, who can now only outfit himself with a thick layer of dust, pay particular attention to the more refined coverings of the humans around him?

It was getting late, and as Gregor remarks before he ceases slumber altogether, “Human being need their sleep.” I’ll leave my bedroom attire to the reader’s imagination and simply note that after turning off the light, I swaddled myself particularly tightly in my blanket that night.

Kafka at a Cafe:
Given Prague’s robust café culture, reading The Metamorphosis at a coffee shop seemed de rigeur. Before my coffee had time to cool, I reached the passage in which Gregor shows himself for the first time to his mother, father, and the general manager. Frau Samsa backs up into the table and knocks over the coffeepot, prompting the first instinctual reaction Gregor experiences in his new form:

“Mother, Mother,” Gregor said softly, gazing up at her. For a moment he had forgotten all about the general manager; on the other hand, he could not restrain himself, when he beheld this flowing coffee, from snapping his jaws several times. At this, the mother gave another shriek and fled from the table into the arms of Gregor’s father as he rushed to her aid.

The father proceeds to “aid” Gregor by giving him a “liberating shove” through the too-narrow bedroom door, scraping his sides and mangling a few of his legs. As the narrator rationalizes: “And of course in his father’s current state it could not possibly have occurred to him to open the door’s other wing to create an adequate passage.” Of course: the father’s “current state,” in which he is “uttering hisses like a wild man,” logically prevents him from taking into account his son’s. Instinct and logic are consistently at odds in the novella. Gregor is a creature who can’t control his jaws from grotesquely snapping at the sight (or scent) of coffee, yet who in a later scene will ignore his instincts by deeming it unsportsmanlike to escape from his father’s wrath by crawling on the walls and ceiling. He is rewarded for his consideration with a debilitating injury.

The Metamorphosis is full of confident logical statements that butt up against the profound illogicality of the novella’s conceit. My favorite is Grete’s reaction when she doesn’t immediately see Gregor in his room: “…well, goodness, he had to be somewhere, it’s not as if he might have flown away…” Why, pray tell, not? He has, after all, just turned into a giant bug. (Nabokov is convinced that Gregor does actually have wings, and thus could have flown away.)

It is no wonder then that the family’s final judgment on Gregor takes the form of a logical pronouncement: “If it were Gregor, it would have realized a long time ago that it just isn’t possible for human beings to live beside such a creature, and it would have gone away on its own.” Of course.

Kafka in the Park:
The airplane, bed, and even the tightly packed café had replicated the cramped nature of the Samsa apartment. It was time for some open space. The sun was shining for the first time in months, and I had a bench to myself in a gorgeous park with a view much better than Gregor’s, which looked out on “a desert in which the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably conjoined.” I had read the novella three times now, so I decided this time to carry out an outdoor-friendly exegetical exercise and think up alternate titles for the novella. (In a perfect world, all English essay prompts about free will, fate, nature, and nurture should be replaced with one: Re-title the book in question and justify your response.)

Good Intentions: The novella is full of good intentions that backfire and those that can’t always be expressed. Each time he escapes from his room, the agonizingly slow Gregor only survives by signaling his “good intentions” to his father that he is trying to return as quickly as he can. Each failure of empathy or understanding is recalled in the perfectly insensitive and deliciously ironic last line “…it seemed to [the Samsas] almost a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when their daughter swiftly sprang to her feet and stretched her young body.”

Whimsical Extravagances: A phrase used in the beginning of the novella by the general manager in reference to Gregor’s absence from work. Unlike his fellow salesmen who live “like harem girls,” Gregor leads an ascetic, dutiful existence and has the “cautious habit” of locking his bedroom door at night. He has no friends to speak of and his romantic life consists of a glossy picture of a model. And yet, perhaps in Gregor’s sporadic and orgiastic fits of crawling, in the pleasure he takes in feeling the cool glass of his beloved picture frame against his belly, the clerk sensed something whimsically extravagant about the dull salesman after all.

New Entertainments: Noticing Gregor’s “peregrinations” and the “sticky trails they leave behind,” Grete takes note of her brother’s “new entertainments.” While there is plenty of abject moping in the novella, there is also a pronounced appetite for fun. Gregor diverts himself with the “novelty of crawling” and by “playfully” taking bites of the food he seldom eats. He enjoys rummaging through the mess in his room with “ever-increasing” pleasure, even if these flights are followed by a sense of shame. The charwoman is clearly intrigued by, even fond of, her charge, and upon first seeing Gregor, the lodgers find him more entertaining than Grete’s mediocre violin playing. Even Gregor’s father adopts a tone both “furious” and “glad” upon steeling himself to punish Gregor for the first time. The metamorphosis has thus provided everyone in the household with new sadistic, voyeuristic, and freakish entertainments.

Pride Before the Fall: Coffee pots spill, violins drop, Gregor plummets from the bed and ceiling, man descends the evolutionary ladder, and apples rain down from on high.

And several more jottings to ponder on a nice afternoon in the park: Creatures of Habit; Special Accommodations; Social Mobility; The Doors; Exaggerated Deference; Gregor and the Women; Ancient Debts; Conditional Love.

Kafka at a Bar:
coverThe celebratory fifth and final reading. Thinking it too pretentious to read Kafka at the bar, I secured a seat on an outside deck and made my way through one novella and a few IPAs. Given my earlier concerns, I was surprised to find myself sitting next to two patrons debating a Slavoj Žižek essay from a collection entitled Deconstructing Zionism. Had I woken up from troubled dreams to find myself transformed once again into a graduate student?

After about 40 pages, the sun and the seven percent beer took its toll. The conversations taking place around me made it even more difficult to focus. Various entertaining topics were discussed: the ethics of a 24-year-old playing on a 30-and-over softball team, Southerners’ inability to drive in the snow, and overhead bin etiquette. In the snippet that made me lose all hope of continuing my engagement with The Metamorphosis, a man referred to a reviled co-worker as an “ass barnacle,” thereby trumping Kafka’s relatively tame takedown of the general manager as a “creature devoid of backbone and wit.”

cover Well, I reasoned, eavesdropping happens to be a central part of the novella, and indeed of Kafka’s oeuvre, so why not go with it? As a snooping peasant tells K. in The Castle, “There’s always something new to listen to.” There is a usually a sinister aspect to Kafkaesque eavesdropping, but in The Metamorphosis, it stems from Gregor’s yearning to “be drawn once more into the circle of humankind.” Instead he gets “tolerance, only tolerance.” The Samsas do permit their son to listen in on their dull domestic scenes at night through a slightly open door, but he is told in no uncertain terms to disappear when he attempts to actually rejoin the circle. The last thing Gregor ever hears is his sister’s exasperated “Finally!” as she impatiently watches him return to his room for the last time. Nevertheless, while dying he thinks back on his family with “nothing but tenderness and love,” the grotesque proceedings and rough handling having done little to affect his thirst for human company.

I went to walk off my buzz, giving free rein to a drunken mawkishness about Gregor’s goodness, an assessment of his character challenged forcefully in Bernofsky’s afterword:

…Gregor’s new physical state appears as a representation of his long-standing spiritual abjectness. Finally Gregor has only himself to blame for the wretchedness of his situation, since he has unwillingly accepted wretchedness as it was thrust upon him…Gregor Samsa, giant bug, is a cartoon of the subaltern, a human being turned inside out. He has traded in his spine for an exoskeleton…Gregor is a salesman, but what he’s sold is himself: his own agency and dignity, making him a sellout through and through.

Seduced by the seeming clarity of the allegory, Bernofsky is too hard on Gregor, who is guilty, just as Joseph K. and most of Kafka’s anti-heroes are guilty. But Kafka’s allegories are more opaque; Gregor and K. are also perfectly innocent and, crucially, the actions of those around them are manifestly more despicable. To quote the decidedly pro-Gregor Nabokov: “Here is a point to be observed with care and love. Gregor is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people.”

Re-readers, I’m convinced, are more judgmental than first-time readers, but on my fifth and buzzed reading, I had never felt more fondly about Gregor — a fussy, abject saint, but a saint nonetheless. Perhaps I would have revised this view had I gone through with a sixth reading, “Kafka with a Hangover,” but to echo one of the alternate titles, that would have seemed like a “whimsical extravagance.”

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at matthewseidel.com.

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