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Kafka Writes The Metamorphosis, 1915

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2010 at 8:06 am

rs, behavior for which his father found him weak and irresponsible.

While the equation of Gregor with Kafka and the senior Samsa and Gregor’s boss with Herrmann Kafka is of speculative interest, it is of less importance than the particular modern themes that evolve from such character contrasts. Gregor is victim–a hapless, antiheroic protagonist who, hamstrung by his own decency, is unable to cope in a world that is at best indifferent and at worst deliberately hostile and cruel. Furthermore, he becomes totally alienated from those whose love and loyalty he should command. Turned into an insect, lacking the physical capacity for speech but still endowed with human longing and rational powers, Gregor is literally unable to communicate with his family. As metaphor, Gregor, despite his limited spiritual vision, is the sensitive but ineffective man isolated and alone in a brutal, depressing world that relentlessly progresses along Darwinian and Freudian lines.

The dominant mood of The Metamorphosis is one of gloom and despair. Life the Samsa family is dreary and largely uneventful. If there is any hope for anything. other than an empty, time-serving existence ending in an obscure grave, it lies in Grete’s potential as a violinist or, for the author, in his own art. It had been Gregor’s hope to fund his sister’s training at a conservatory, but with his metamorphosis, that hope is crushed. Ironically, as the story progresses and Gregor becomes more adept as an insect, he also becomes increasingly sensitive to Grete’s playing, with the allegorical implication that in order to develop fully an aesthetic sensibility, modern man must withdraw from or be ostracized by a society that no longer cares about what he thinks, much less what he feels.

Although there is an apparent kinship between Kafka’s fiction and that of Russian writers from Nikolai Gogol to Anton Chekhov, the writers Kafka admired most were Johann Goethe and Gustave Flaubert. The latter has been credited with having prompted Kafka to use antiheroic protagonists treated with scientific detachment, the former with having instilled in him an abiding sense of Weltschmerz, or “world sorrow”. Kafka, a Jew, filtered these influences through a consciousness acutely sensitive to social victimization and familial obligation. What evolves from that confluence of ethnic and literary heritages is the “Kafkaesque” tale, a story told in straightforward, simple prose that deals with a hapless protagonist who, while maintaining a cringing respect for authority, suffers anxiety and depression from a failure to measure up to its demands. Ironically, that authority, in whatever form, is often illogical or inscrutable and is invariably dehumanizing.

It is that irony that gives The Metamorphosis its disquieting and provocative power. After his transformation, Gregor, although powerless to meet his obligations to job and family, develops a maturing, humanizing self-awareness. In addition to becoming increasingly sensitive to the feelings of others, he begins to appreciate his sister’s music, that form of human expression that impinges most directly on man’s soul. Meanwhile, the authoritarian figures, Gregor’s loutish father and the bullying office manager, both reveal a total insensitivity and mounting hostility toward Gregor–particularly the parasitical father, who resents having to return to work and holds Gregor responsible for all ills that befall the family. Clearly, the real vermin of the piece are the selfish exploiters who treat others without a shred of human compassion or respect.

Impact of Event

General recognition of the literary achievement of Franz Kafka did not come until after his death from tuberculosis in 1924, in part because Kafka himself had been reluctant to publish more than a small sampling of work. Although he had early champions among a small coterie of German-language literati–in Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann, for example–it was not until the posthumous publication of his unfinished novels in the late 1920’s that Kafka’s reputation began to grow and his works, in translation, broke geographical and language boundaries. Had his friend and biographer Max Brod not chosen to ignore Kafka’s dying wish that his unpublished works.be burned, Kafka would probably have remained an obscure and largely ignored writer.

Brod was the first important critical interpreter of Kafka’s fiction, and although many of his opinions have been discredited, he played an extremely important role in bringing Kafka to an international audience. That was paramount for Kafka’s artistic survival, for in the 1930’s, despite Kafka’s early espousal of atheism and socialism, the Marxist critics of East Europe rejected his works as nihilistic and defeatist, while in Nazi Germany they were suppressed as the irrelevant whinings of an effete, intellectual Jew. By then, much of Kafka’s work had been translated into both English and French, and by the 1940’s, West European and American scholars and critics began to herald both his finished and fragmentary works as major contributions to modern fiction. Thereafter, he was rediscovered in the German-speaking nations of Europe and became a major influence on contemporary German fiction. In the 1960’s, he gained belated recognition in the intellectual and literary circles of his native Czechoslovakia, then under Communist rule.

By mid-century, Kafka’s name had become synonymous with the modern theme of alienation, and The Metamorphosis, his first important published work, was often singled out as the seminal piece of fiction developing that theme. Less perplexing and more tightly structured than more ambitious works such as Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), The Metamorphosis quickly gained a reputation as Kafka’s most approachable work, and it was widely read and discussed. Since then, it has continued to enjoy a reputation as a modern classic, a brilliant tour de force embodying in mode and manner Kafka’s artistic genius and his dominant themes and technique.

The general influence of Kafka’s work, directly or indirectly, is both diffuse and pervasive in modern literature. Although his work’s greatest impact is on fiction, his influence cuts across literary genres and is particularly visible in drama. In The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), Martin Esslin credits Kafka with having had a formative influence on the absurdist playwrights of the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Kafka’s fellow countryman Václav Havel and the English playwright Tom Stoppard, who was born in Czechoslovakia. In general, existentialist playwrights and novelists, notably Albert Camus, were drawn to Kafka’s work, seeing in his protagonists the plight of the existential hero who somehow must plod on in the face of cosmic insignificance and personal despair.

The theme of the individual’s alienation from an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world will always be associated with Kafka, but of equal importance and lasting influence is the technique he developed in The Metamorphosis and other fictional works. Although he dealt with mostly mundane human activity, he filtered it through the crazy-quilt world of the dream, rich with symbolism subject to a wide range of psychological and critical interpretations. In fact, few modern writers have inspired as much controversy as Kafka, and the academic interest in his work remains intense. About one thing, however, there has long been a lasting scholarly consensus: that Kafka was a prescient visionary who left behind an important literary legacy.

Source Citation: “Kafka Writes The Metamorphosis, 1915.” DISCovering World History. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2004. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC&gt;

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