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Read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and then the below overview of this week’s topic.
Franz Kafka published The Metamorphosis in 1915, and it remains a cornerstone of Modernist literature, not only for its absurd premise, but for the way in which it examines the human condition in the face of such absurdity. Franz Kafka challenges the reader from the outset with the physical transformation of Gregor Samsa into a creature, while Gregor’s mind remains stuck on the minutiae of his daily life. The imposition of the existential crisis of the transformation on the narrative provides a sense of farce that extends into how the story and its characters proceed.
As you read the story, pay close attention to how you feel physically when reading of how Gregor deals with the transformation, his surroundings, and the way he is treated. Compare those feelings with how you felt reading Notes from the Underground. Are they similar or different? Are they similar to how you feel in your daily life, or are these works of literature eliciting reactions you would not have considered without the stories to prompt you?
Early in the narrative, the reader wonders whether Gregor is simply imagining his transformation, almost play-acting like a small child might pretend that he is a lion. The reactions of his family and later on, the cleaning woman and house boarders, indicate that his physical condition is real. We are then faced with imagining ourselves in that condition, which shifts Gregor’s existential crisis onto the reader, and we hope for compassion instead of revulsion.
At the end of the story, everything resolves itself rather quickly and for the benefit of the whole family, which seems just as preposterous as the metamorphosis itself. Again, take note of how you feel physically as the situation is resolved.
Not all modernist literature goes to the length that The Metamorphosis does, transforming a character as we see Gregor transformed, but Kafka’s point is that modern life can debase people and set them on a path that they would not choose for themselves—if not for the need to pay the rent or take care of their family. Research shows that Kafka may have written the story from feelings of frustration in his own life—he worked a job not out of love for the work, but because it supported his desire to write. The people in the story could represent his conflicted feelings toward his situation and his own family, while the end of the story could have been expressing his thoughts on life without him, or how a life unburdened might play out. The story is ripe for interpretation in a multitude of ways. Note how little we need to know of Kafka and his background to be able to understand the story of The Metamorphosis, compared to older works such as Paradise Lost that tend to require more in-depth study to fully understand the position and subject matter.


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