“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence—after the book design, title, and epigraph—is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t—and shouldn’t—always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here—the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”—are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form—gender, power, identity, authenticity—and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closet-like room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows—subtly, maybe inexpressibly—that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing—suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur—a kind of historical importance—to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect—and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale—no other word for it—with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway—deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is—you guessed it—swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales—religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrowed her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor—if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions—billions, even—of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition—to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”—has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening—hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image credit: Pexels/Plush Design Studio.
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.
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:
The 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.”
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.”