The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka — Individual, Poverty and Love; a profound mutation
Discalaimer: Please read the book before indulging in this post. The post is designed to give a perspective into the book. It should not be taken as the only authorized interpretation of the book. In case you are not sure about what you feel or fail to understand beyond the lines, this post will help you. So with that, SPOILERS AHEAD…
Have you ever wondered about unconditional love? Have you reached beyond the romanticized portrayal of financial struggles and scraped to uncover the unsaid issues? And have you ever wondered about the mass of your existence (in the metaphorical sense)? If this is a poll, varied answers would flood in. But, their numbers will take you nowhere. This book, on the other hand, flushes out a monstrous truth that connects all these questions. A bug that we refuse to think about. Because if we do, then our life would be confined to the revelation. Like Gregor Samsa, the crawling hero of this book, the realization will crawl like creepy bed bugs all over you and in the end engulf your whole life. Well, then what is the said truth? Pretentious as it may sound, the connection is the truth. Kafka presents a horrifyingly bleak answer to these questions. He reminds us of these questions itself via the dreary situation he traps us in. Let me explore the three questions one by one through this book.
Existence — From need to nuisance
People work strenuously day and night to make ends meet. Those around them offer advice to take intermittent breaks. Most of the time these jobs constitute lengthy and hard labor. It demands the exertion of both body and mind. Just like it did for our Gregor. His dogged spirit propped him up to a higher position, but not high enough to afford a break. The usual consensus is that these tired labors deserve a moment to breathe. But they don’t get it. Their entire life is spent building a future for those close to them; their family. As they retire into a semblance of a long-yearned vacation, it metamorphoses into a feeble burden. Their legs have become as thin as the line between need and nuisance. After years of servitude, they lost mastery over their own body. Prolonged fornication with work and extrication of the family has drawn a wedge of intolerance between them. Thousands of hours expended to bring the food to the table, cloth to cover and shelter over their heads. Now, they cannot enjoy the fruits of their seeds by themselves. Scantily clad clothes, but neither intentional nor with knowledge. They are homeless inside their own house. Elementary physics has taught us that mass is not affected by gravity. But societies pay no mind to laws of physics. The same goes for the human world as opposed to the physical one. Here how much you pull is your worth. Invalidation could erase your legacy (may not be applicable for the rich).
Kafka is not hasty here. He gives space for all those years of work to be slowly forgotten along with the worker. None is evil. He indulges in defining the value of a man. In the decrepit state, what pushed them to the confines of a luxurious trash can. He illustrates all of this with a metaphor of a vermin. But that is beside the point. Whatever Samsa goes through internally parallels every estranged or lonely senior citizen of the world (Again, may not be applicable if you are rich). They were trapped in monotony for ages. A change would be embraced. But that is where nuance is lost. During those periods of repetitive hell, they stuck to objects, routines, and places which were their salvation. A sweeping change, even if it is beneficial and keeping them would end up harming them, it does not amount to peace. As a cruel act of entropy, their treasures have (again) metamorphosed into wastages. But what they are is vestiges, a remnant of what kept them going through those times of stress and anxiety. So it is no wonder that Gregor was so protective of the frame.
As they get closer to being a nuisance, the farther others get from understanding them. Moreover, what they have to offer pales in comparison with what they need. Similar to Gregor their intentions are pure. They restrict themselves as much as possible to avoid being a hindrance. But their outward actions betray inward intentions. Once again, nature spits on the ignorant and sanctimonious human concepts of good and bad. Their physical inability will always end up siphoning more than others can give. This renders their past personality or current thoughts irrelevant. Gregor Samsa cannot be understood because the structurization of his figure did not allow him to articulate what he thought. This is the encroachment level that completes the transmogrification. They crave for a bond but a dutiful servant or the beneficiaries of their toils whose desultory routines governed by a mild moral code and heavy social pressure is the closest they will get to a semblance of a bond. They try to express only to that turn into more exclusion. Finally, they emerge as a Nuisance; a liability, hindrance and obsolete.
Poverty — Where Everything is Bartered
Do poor people have to cross to the dubious side of morality often? Do rich people sail comfortably to the other side? These are sweeping statements in the form of pretentious metaphors, aren’t they? Yes, all kinds of people live both above and below the poverty line. But it is an indelible mark of history that murky areas of morality need to be accessed to stay afloat when all you are left with is your mind and body. The system is built in such a way that virtues have metamorphosed into commodities. Moral and ethics are a luxury. Your schedule is booked till death (or retirement). And stopping to think about anything is not part of that. That is what Gregor’s dismay at his situation at the beginning of the story indicates. Something horrendously inexplicable has taken place. This type of change should bug your ability to think with a plethora of questions. But it does not. His apprehensions are disturbingly misdirected. He cannot allocate a moment to examine his plight. He has to get ready for work. He is already delayed by a significant amount of time. This inhumane exploitation of humans is pervasive throughout the organization. The pervasiveness is wittily referenced here.
Something fell in there,” said the head clerk in the adjoining room to the left. Gregor tried to imagine whether something similar to what had happened to him today might one day befall the head clerk; the possibility really had to be granted”
The dehumanized dependency of the poor on their work is further highlighted by Kafka in the scene when the door opens and the shocked characters on the other side discover a sight of their lifetime. Here there are two aspects to consider. One is from Gregor’s perspective, another is from his family. But both of them are manifestations of being entrenched in the lower portions of the society. In that distressing situation let us look at Gregor first.
Gregor is stripped to his most pathetic state here (None of the more deplorable events of the future is equivalent to this). His obliviousness, the blatant misreading of it all pricks the readers. But that is what the author counts on. He is not allowed to have thoughts other than about his work, his tomorrow, an opportunity to survive one more day. He goes crawling after the Chief Clerk who had come to inquire about the delay. He is not concerned or has no realization of what is transpiring at that moment — the infestation of a corrupted system has taken over every atom of his being. He has no idea about the ineffectiveness of his actions. His efforts are akin to trying to escape a venus flytrap. It is pointless. The virus has metamorphosed into a futile optimism. That optimistic mode of thought is oxygen for these people. They have to keep believing in the impossible. The alternative is a certain demise. He has bartered his rationality, dignity, and probably life itself to stay afloat.
Now the second one is his family. You see, a knee jerk reaction is being numbed; Curiosity. They do not have room for that. They have room for guests in the future but no, they cannot stow away their time wondering about the how and why of Gregor’s condition. They must promptly mitigate potential damages. That is what his father tries to do. He pushes Gregor into the room, trading off his primal itch to wonder for an indoctrinated response of minimizing damage.
And as you progress through the book, people around him are impelled to trade their virtues. Kafka assures the existence of these qualities so when they are sold, you understand the epidemic of money itself. It may seem like they have chosen voluntarily to become a monster in the end. That is not the case. A systemic disenfranchising of the less fortunate has molded them like this. Yes, I used the word fortunate. Because luck has everything to do here. Similar to the answer to the previous question, this also has a meaning that is not so literal. Whatever happened to Gregor was as much a misfortune as it is unbelievable — it cannot be logically explained (just like the concept of luck). One need not transform into a vermin but any event that cannot be controlled could paralyze anyone like it did Gregor. And if they are not affluent, they will be gradually facing the same fate as him. If it is a blame game you wish to play, then we would be shoehorned to erase the evolution of humans itself. Because it is a domino with billions of factors as pieces. And no system is viable enough to sustain the dreams of everyone.
And thus, every sickening decision made by the family, with purpose or inadvertently, is on the web together with their financial need. They have to get rid of anything that is an encumbrance to their earning. So while prioritizing, Gregor was placed in the last. And by the same order of priority; he was beaten, by the same father who had slept of his days, weakened slowly along while his son worked (before all this); he was abandoned by the same sister who had shown the most rational form of kindness one would see by adjusting all around Gregor according to the changing circumstances; and to culminate, killed by realization — the same person who was pitifully unaware of his life during the start of the story.
Love — Test of Potency
You are born into a normal family. With a caring mother, disciplining father and a sister whom you quibble with often but secretly love and care for each other. You spend all day spilling blood and sweat at the place of work. You tolerate any discomfort as a repayment of all these years of care from them. From the outside and also your point of view, it is a loving family. Unless and until something is put to test, its real strength will not be revealed. There is no reason to love when you have everything. There won’t be any immorality when moral tension is not stretched. Only the worst reveals the best or worst of what appears to be beautiful. And this story is a test of love and its potency.
Kafka presents you with the love people think exists. He does not turn this entirely into a skeptical affair. Right of the bat, you are witnessing the love of a mother, who recognizes the irregularity in his voice when no one else could. Then to his sister, who’s love is the most astounding one, that which blends shrewdness into it. Her first act of care is again sarcastically referenced by Kafka here
“And already two girls in rustling skirts were hurrying through the hallway — however had his sister managed to dress so quickly.”
Despite this story not stressing much on sketching its characters except for Gregor, who is unavoidable, it has successfully etched an unforgettable one, his sister. Grete Samsa. She is the cornerstone of this tale. She is fascinating because, in the same setting, she metamorphoses from a symbol of benevolence to the personification of callousness. Yes, his father was a brute too, but that is a relative term in this sense. He did express his love, but in a way, that shields their entire family. Also, his behavior was brutal because the other two were enticingly sympathetic.
His sister remained as a beacon of hope for Gregor. She displayed the most prudent form of love. She was like a machine learning software. She recognized the patterns of distress and removed them one by one. She was terrified of his appearance, but still had the heart to acknowledge humanity left inside. Along with time, her attitude too passed. She began to be less meticulous and attentive. Gregor’s unexpected freeze set her life ablaze. A young girl in her late teens was shoved into becoming a part of a process that vomits millions of Gregor’s every day. She was not allowed to afford the time to take care of her brother. Then, after the incident where Gregor makes himself visible to the guests, who are the most important source of income for the family at present, we are utterly fazed by her unforeseen cruelty — she decides to exterminate her brother from their life.
At first sight, this seems cruel because of its suddenness. But it is not sudden at all. Under the portrayal of her love for Gregor, Kafka neatly sketches her character. She is a survivalist. She tries to make the best of the given situation, even if it means sacrificing her brother. This was blocked by her good intentions at first. Again, only the worst reveals the best or worst of what appears to be beautiful. You are loved until you encroach the peace of those who love you.
Kafka also points to the difficulty of loving those who are like Gregor; incomprehensible, lonely and useless. There is this scene that oozes out with love most of us can only dream of. Scenes like this make the ending even more bizarre. Gregor’s sister and mother discuss what would best for Gregor in his current condition. Sister says he would need as much space as feasible to crawl. Mother says taking away those things to create space would tantamount to voluntarily giving up hope of getting Gregor back in human form again as those things are what reminds him of his humanity. This wonderful moment is messed up by Gregor when he decides to show himself in front of his mother, who is afflicted with asthma. It is difficult to love the unloved because they cause everything conceivable to hate them. They are not necessarily evil. They make themselves irritably improbable to comprehend.
Connection — Flaws of none
Kafka is a genius. He subverts the entire genre of fantasy itself. This is a story that is technically under the category of fantasy. But there is nothing fantasized about this. The hideous transmogrification is used to accentuate the point instead of basing everything about that. It is an amplifier, not the speaker itself. Like the Gregor household, who are not at all interested in the why and how of this fiasco, we should also stray away from extrapolating theories about Gregor’s condition. Rather, we focus on the consequences. Because repercussions of an unprecedented event are where true realism lies. The aftermath of fantasy is what we are presented with.
Gregor Samsa is a pure, uncluttered and principled person. He is the only one in this who did not change at all. He remained sincere to what he was before becoming a thing of disgust. He was a staple hero. His mother and especially sister were exemplifiers of affection and care. There could not be a more devoted sister and a protective mother. His father was comparatively less affable but not inherently reprehensible, even if his reaction to the issue may suggest that. So what is that mysterious organism that took over and caused this whole metamorphosis.? Who is responsible?
Kafka is not settling himself into a treasure hunt for blame. He envisions this as a symptom of a disease with extinction as its cure. A world that is adamant about being right is almost always wrong in every way possible. This is a train that is running in a circle. Every second what’s little left of goodness is kicked out and more wickedness hop in.
We teach the Gregor’s of the world to be what they are, wading through the stormy waters without losing his purity, clarity, and principle. We teach the Grete’s of the world to be compassionate, however cruel and grotesque it may be. But what we ignore is the how. The laws tell you to behave in a certain way. But it is silent when that way would probably lead to you starving or freezing or drowning to death. It is mandatory to possess virtues. One with the most is regarded with high veneration. And from your first breath to the last you are reminded of this procedure and forced to strive to garner such respect. But nobody has answers to the above three questions- the tests of virtues. You are supposed to pass this test and you are not allowed to cheat. How is this possible when you are not prepared for it? When all the effort is exhausted on getting the wrongdoers in line, where will one find the alternative to an unethical solution when there is none (except dying). Kafka is not normalizing spurious behavior, but rather, he attempts to shine a light on choiceless people. And his brilliance lies in making the reader feel the scarcity of choices.
Kafka places the nicest people against harshest weather to see whether they survive together or kill and burn the least useful for some warmth. He brings out the worst in a person with insignificant fantasy as the foreground and significant reality as the background. This is a blatantly uneventful take on humans with dwindling hopes page after page. Maybe this is not generalization but a handful outlier. But Kafka keeps us working towards a better society as a whole by the form of a nubile young woman in the end.
Originally published at http://thevicariousview.wordpress.com on February 27, 2020.