The Metamorphosis: The Culture of Dehumanization

Apparently, when it comes to reading, for me this is the year of “catching up”; I’m reading books I should have read years ago under the mantra better late than never. It has an upside, you know, as when you discover Agatha Christie at 30 – Yes, I haven’t read her books as a teenager-  you feel thankful you hadn’t read them and that she wrote so many books that now you’re spoiled for choice.

It was in the same fashion that I picked up The Metamorphosis by Kafka, not only because it’s preposterous to be a writer born in the 20th century and haven’t read anything by Kafka yet, but because of one particular thing I’ve read about how he was the inspiration behind Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Marquez himself said that when he started reading The Metamorphosis, specifically the very first line where a man wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, he had this epiphany that “Anyone can write anything they want”, and from there he went on to write what he wanted indeed, transcending the lines that separate fiction from reality.

I was aware before I started reading that this is a work of literature that has been interpreted, analyzed and dissected over and over again, but I was yet to see for myself what the fuss was all about. In the beginning it seemed like a bad dream, too absurd not only in the sense that the protagonist  Gregor Samsa woke up one day to find that he was transformed into a vermin, but because of his reaction to it. One would imagine that if you were to wake up one morning to find yourself transformed into an insect you would be washed over with panic, wondering what on earth has happened, not worrying about being late to work. You would be busy thinking how you could possibly get back into your human form, not how to arrange your life as to fit the new situation.

But then things started to come into focus, especially as he described the family’s reaction to that metamorphosis, forsaking him, all but his loyal sister, and thinking how they would make ends meet now as they have been depending on him as the main bread-winner in the household. Now it all made sense, Kafka was peeling away at reality, he was showing us the bare truth: the value of the human being in the capitalistic, consumerist world, the ongoing dehumanization as a person is reduced to his net worth: you have money, then you matter. You don’t, then you’re no more than a pest. The only sympathy Gregor gets comes from his sister, and a little bit from his mother, but then even that changes and his sister who was once his biggest advocate becomes his biggest adversary as she urges her father to get rid of that insect who they should not consider to be Gregor anymore, which contributes to his eventual demise. All of that puts into focus another important theme of the story, a scary theme perhaps which people in real life often avoid talking about directly: the limits of sympathy.

I found the last part of the story brilliant; the way guilt is mixed with the feeling of liberation after the cockroach had died. They knew their son and brother was trapped somewhere inside that insect, but they couldn’t help but see it as such, an insect that was making their life harder than it already was. What was also brilliant is that we could see things from Gregor’s point of view as he spoke his mind, and at the same time we could see his family dealing with him based on his outer appearance as the insect he was transformed into, losing the ability to communicate little by little but more importantly, not even trying. The obstacles which the body can put before the mind, and the connection between the two.

All in all, I found the story disturbing, and I have no doubt it was meant to be so, and the more you think about it, the more disturbing it gets. So you can dig into the themes and the symbols in the story, or you can just treat it as a surreal piece of literature and let it mess with your mind however way it pleases. For me, it was inevitably both.


4 responses

  1. Brilliant “review”. I am not sure if u just/recently finished reading it or it has been a few days. Anyhow, it has its spell on you still it seems :). I am not sure if “disturbing” is what I’d label it, not even one of the labels.

    It is quiet a story, makes you want to learn German just to be able to probe “more” into Kafka’s mind! [did u read it in German?]

    The title of it is closer to “transformation” than metamorphosis (I know this because when I was under the spell I dug and dug and this was one of the things I learnt). I think, think, it shows that Kafka was trying to reveal, among many other things, that under the appearances is a/the real thing. And we need to remove the blinding obstacles and not lose our focus to such reality. We are not what we look like or what we can/cannot buy/possess.

    I wasn’t going to mention this last line but I never thought this is your 1st visit to 3ammo kafka 🙂 “I hesitated bkz it would “might” sound like I am shocked, hence a conclusion that I am a good reader that can spot how appalling it is not to read kafka early, very early, on” which I just did! Hooray 😦
    u made me want to read it again! Which I cannot and that is going to trouble me shway :{

    • No I read it in English, I don’t know German. But I think the Transformation is more fitting indeed, although the Metamorphosis is more catchy. Notice that Gregor is not the only one who undergoes a transformation in the story, his sister goes into one too and that is shown at the end when her parents point out how she has blossomed into a fine woman and it was time to find her a husband. Interestingly though, her transformation was partly a result of Gregor’s transformation as she had to pull it together, find a job, test her sympathy limits, etc. She was no longer the spoiled girl who wants to go to the conservatory to learn the violin. And that opens another door, it reminds me of an Arabic proverb: ما بيكبر جسد ليفنى جسد

      Yes I am disappointed at myself for waiting until now to read Kafka, but what can I say, I wasted precious years of my life not reading before I was 19, that’s another story.

  2. I got mixed up. I thought u knew it and taught a selection courses at the German Jordanian uni (in German).

    U r absolutely right about the multiple transformations + the multi-level transformation within one.

    There are lots and loads of good written work, it is hard to keep up surely :). I never read a single book in English before 16 or 17. My over-a-decade pledge of reading 10 pages every day no matter what helped in catching up. U will catch up kaman

  3. How fascinating and frightening. I’m not sure I’m ready for books that don’t present the world as a lovely/sad dreamlike place (eg Garcia Marquez) but uses giant cockroaches to make a point , haha.

    I saw Jordan play Palestine in my city a few weeks ago!

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