The Metamorphosis – a tragicomic masterpiece

SPOILER ALERT

To me, prose fiction is the documentation of fictional events. It is up to the author to find something worth documenting. The two most basic forms of this are ordinary and extraordinary: John Steinbeck chooses to write about a typical experience of a migrant worker in California, whereas the Sherlock Holmes stories document the experience of an extraordinary individual. Often it follows that ordinary stories are tales of failure, exposing the harsh reality of a situation, whereas extraordinary stories are worth telling because they are about the people who are extraordinary enough to win through. What Kafka has done in The Metamorphosis is to cross these two forms. Gregor’s transformation is unexplained: it does not form part of a wider fantasy world, it is a freak event, an extraordinary circumstance. The topic is extraordinary. Nevertheless, Kafka’s narrative is ordinary. It is a tragedy, a failure, and not even a dramatic one, a miserable wasting away. It is so easy to believe that this will be a story about how Gregor and his family deal with his transformation. It is not. It is a story about how they don’t deal with it. Their efforts are short-lived and, as the narrative makes clear, insufficient to ensure his survival. Kafka has given an impression of how this situation would typically pan out, despite the unique nature of the situation itself.

So if the circumstances are unique, but the results unimpressive, what’s the point? There are two. Firstly, it’s a breath of fresh air. There is absolutely nothing wrong or idealistic about documenting only the extraordinary cases with extraordinary results, but the expectation of another of those stories renders Gregor’s eventual passing, while a little surprising, even more flat  and listless. Secondly, Kafka’s story is an exercise in philosophy and ethics. Quite simply it is a fascinating exploration of what a family might do under extreme circumstances. The fact that the circumstances Kafka has chosen are so extreme as to be beyond possibility only gives a new coat of polish to the exercise. Just as arguments and thought experiments are more thought-provoking in fictional form, so the application of fantasy here makes the story still more interesting. Kafka doesn’t need to explain how the metamorphosis occurred: that’s not the point. The point is what the story shows about humanity.

What does it show about humanity? That the family model is not flawless; that dependency on one individual can under the wrong circumstances flip the world on its head; that the strongest love and the strongest hate are sometimes millimetres away from each other, can exist in the mind at the same time in equal measure and validity, can switch in an instant, are inextricably linked under some circumstances, one provoking the other. It is horrifying to think how similar Gregor’s story is to the typical breakup. I knew someone whose husband died of a heart attack, and eventually resolved to try and find someone new. She considered going to a communion of divorced people to do so. A friend of hers advised her against it on the grounds that “Your husband died, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to you. Most people in divorce communions want to kill their exes.” It’s terrible to think how quickly the strongest love can turn to the most violent hate. Herr Samsa’s attacks on his transformed son are all the more grotesque and horrifying for their motivation of love. Something inside him realises who the creature he sees is. He cannot bring himself to kill Gregor, as any other with the courage would if confronted with a six-foot verminous insect. Herr Samsa herds Gregor into his room instead, using a stick and a newspaper, and later throws a bowl of apples at him, one breaking through his back and rotting inside him for the rest of his days. The pain Herr Samsa causes his son is far worse than the death that finally meets him.

Gregor’s obstinately practical day-to-day lines of thinking in The Metamorphosis make it an overtly comical piece of prose, but the true nature of Kafka’s work is incredibly sinister. It is a very powerful and moving story.

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