Metamorphosis A Novella By Franz Kafka English Literature Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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Metamorphosis is a novella by Franz Kafka and deals with the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who is the family’s sole earner, waking up one morning finding himself transformed into a bug. In the following Kafka describes how Gregor’s position within the family as well as the family itself change.

The story is divided into three parts. Each of them ends with Gregor attempting to break out off his room but being refused and hurt by his family. The first part begins with Gregor awaking and finding himself transformed into a bug. Curiously he is rather worried about being late for work than about being not human anymore. Even on the first page evidence for Todorov’s theme of ‘The Self’ can be found. This Theme deals with his interest in the self and the world around this self in relation to the fantastic and the supernatural. The reader does not know if Gregor really transformed into a bug. This ambiguity, according to Todorov, is the reason for the reader hesitating between different possible explanations of events, the realistic and the supernatural. When the reader decides whether an event was real or imaginary, the story is either ‘uncanny’ or ‘marvelous’. [1] Metamorphosis therefore is rather a marvelous narrative considering that the reader is not explicitly told why Gregor has transformed into a bug.

To Todorov every word in the novella is a description of the fantastic universe and that there is no reality or truth outside this language used. [2] When Kafka writes that ‘It was no dream’ [3] and that his family cannot understand him anymore because his voice altered, [4] this is evidence enough for Todorov to accept that Gregor really transformed into a bug.

Furthermore he argues that ‘Metamorphoses constitute a transgression of the separation between matter and mind’ [5] and that ‘transition from mind to matter […] become possible’. [6] Gregor is very unhappy with his life working very hard to gain acceptance and having no time for having a relationship. Feeling like a bug eventually transformed him into a bug.

Todorov also wrote about the theme of ‘The Other’ dealing with the relation of man and his desire and repressed desires. This is a very interesting theme which can be found in Metamorphosis as well. Right on the first page we learn about Gregor having a ‘picture of a lady in a fur hat and stole […] bolding in the direction of the onlooker a heavy fur muff into which she had thrust the whole of her forearm’. [7] Freud argues that ‘fur is used as a fetich on account of its association with the hairness of the mons veneris’. [8] Gregor has to work very hard to earn enough money for the whole family. Therefore he has no time to have a relationship. According to Freud, sexual desire is an impulse that is ‘made analougous to the impulse of taking nourishment, and to hunger’. [9] Gregor repressed this desire for a long time and it has to be satisfied.

When Gregor does not come to work the chief clerk comes to his house to see him. Gregor manages to open the door but his family and the chief clerk are frightened. His father tries to force him to go back and eventually kicks and he is thrown back into his room.

The second part shows explicitly Gregor’s relationship to his family and how this changes. His sister is looking after him twice a day and cleans his room regularly. [10] Gregor loves his sister and even planned to send her to expensive school. [11] He is always pleased about when she enters the room and feels sad about not being able to thank her for what she does for him. [12] He knows that she sickens at him but still does not hesitate to feed him. [13] She even brings him a range of food to choose from when she recognizes that he has not drunk the milk. [14] In this scene Grete enters the room, how Gregor describes, ‘almost completely dressed’ [15] to him this must be a detail, important enough to mention. Due to his sexual repressed desire he even seems to see his sister as possible sexual object. Freud argues that an ‘excessive need for affection’ a boy may ‘[cling] for the infantile attraction for […] sisters which has been repressed in puberty’. [16] 

At the end of part two it is the sister who argues that Gregor’s furniture should be removed which hits him very hard knowing them to be the only things that made him not feel like he was not human anymore. Nevertheless he is certain that his sister only wants to create space in his room to give him the chance to crawl. [17] Still he wants to save the picture of the lady as very last relation to his personhood and so he ‘crawled hurriedly up to it and pressed himself against the glass, which stuck to him and impartet a pleasant coolness to his hot belly’. [18] This underlines that his sexual desire is strong and that this is the most important thing to him. According to Todorov, ‘there is no longer any frontier between the object […] and the observer’. [19] It makes no difference to Gregor that this is no real woman but only a picture.

When his sister enters the room ‘her eyes encountered those of Gregor, up on the wall’. [20] Here again, Gregor relates his sexual desire to his sister in a very obvious way. Gregor desperately protects this picture and, by that, frightens his family again. His father shies apples at him until one of them pierced his back and Gregor collapses with pain.

In the third part Kafka describes how Gregor is now able to listen to his family through the open door to the living room. All family members have a job now but they still have money problems which force them to let room to tenants. When his sister plays the violin one night, Gregor, drawn by the music, decides to crawl closer to her. [21] He recognizes that, apart from him, no one really appreciates her play. [22] He crawls even closer ‘meet her gaze’. [23] Todorov argues that ‘sexual desire gains an exceptional mastery over hero’. [24] Although Gregor knows that there are people around who are not supposed to see him, he cannot resist getting closer to her.

In the following Gregor describes explicitly how he desires his sister, ‘he sensed a way to the unknown sustenance he longed for. He was determined to go right up to his sister, to pluck at her skirt and so let her know she was to come into his room’. [25] He wants her to sit next to him and to be with him until he dies. [26] Furthermore he wants to ‘kiss her on the throat’. [27] He obviously desires his own sister and has sexual phantasies of her. According to Todorov, the ‘literature of the fantastic illustrates several transformations of desire’. [28] Most of them belonged to a ‘social form of the uncanny’. [29] So does incest. Gregor’s sexual desire takes over and he cannot think of anything else but to be close to his sister.

When the tenants spot him when he crawls closer to Grete they immediately move out. Now Grete is really angry, locks him into his room and claims that they have to get rid of Gregor [30] who dies the next day. His family is rather relieved than in mourning about his death. They plan to move into a cheaper flat and to marry Grete.

Now I am going to compare Kafka’s novella to Brother and Sister, a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. The story deals with the lives of two siblings, running away from home because they are mistreated by an old witch who is their stepmother.

The action can be divided into three parts, as well. In the first part the children depart from home. Meanwhile their stepmother has ‘cast[ed] her spells over all the streams in the forest’. [31] Eventually brother gets thirsty and wants to drink from a stream but sister can hold him off doing so because she can hear it murmuring: ‘Who drinks of me will be a tiger!’. [32] Although the brother is very thirsty he does not drink. When they come to the next stream, brother is eager to drink but sister can hold him off again, hearing it murmuring: ‘Who drinks me will be a wolf!’. [33] At the next stream she can hear that brother is going to be a roe, if he drinks the water but she cannot stop him who is already drinking and immediately falls ‘on the grass transformed into a little Roebuck’. [34] 

The transformation in this fairytale is, unlike Gregor’s transformation, introduced by two streams until brother eventually cannot resist any longer. Gregor’s transformation, in contrast, is not introduced at all. The whole novella starts with this transformation that, due to that point, lacks of surprise in comparison to the fairytale.

Furthermore the fairytale is definitely a marvelous one. The reader accepts the fantastic, the fact that the witch can curse all streams, which makes her, as Todorov calls it, a ‘supernatural being’, [35] having ‘power over human destiny’, [36] and the fact that brother transforms into a deer, as part of the world. Hence both of Todorov’s ‘supernatural elements’ can be found in this story.

Brother and sister are very sad about the situation but sister promises: ‘”Never mind, dear little fawn, I will never forsake you,” and she [takes] off her golden garter and tie[s] it round the Roe’s neck’. [37] Then she fastens a rope to the collar. This shows the symbolic connection between the two siblings. She promises never to leave him and even connects himself to him. They have a very close relationship which is expressed even in the first sentence, ‘Brother took sister by the hand’. [38] This indicates that brother desires his sister in a way Gregor desires Grete. He wants so be near her and he needs her to look after him and to be with him. Gregor and brother both depend on their sisters.

They now live in a small house in the forest and ‘if brother had but kept his natural form, really it would have been a most delightful kind of life’. [39] This explicitly tells the reader that they would have lived together like couples do.

Here the second part begins. The king has a hunt through the wood. When the deer hears about that it wants to join and after begging his sister she lets him go. The hunt lasts three days and the hunters are eager to shoot the beautiful deer which can always run away though it gets hurt once. On the last day the king follows the deer to the house and finds sister. He asks her who has grown to a ‘lovely maiden’ [40] to marry her. She answers: ‘Oh yes! […] But you must let my Roe come, too. I could not possibly forsake it’. [41] Sister even takes brother into her marriage with the king and keeps her promise.

Here the last part begins. The stepmother watches all this with envy and when sister gives birth to a baby, the witch traps her by leading her into the bathroom and locking the door. She and her hideous daughter ‘make a blazing hot fire under the bath, so that the lovely young Queen might be suffocated’. [42] Then she lays her daughter in the queen’s bed and makes her look alike her. The king never notices. Every night the real queen’s ghost comes to see after her baby and the deer. When she decides to come only for three more nights, the nurse, who watches her every night, tells the king. In the last night of her visit the king cries out that she has to be his wife. She answers: ‘”Yes, I am your dear wife!” and in the same moment she was restored to life, and was as fresh and well and rosy as ever’. [43] The witch and her daughter are put to death and ‘the spell was taken off the little Roe, and he was restored to his natural shape’. [44] 

These are two transformations. The queen in restored to life by the king’s love and the brother is retransformed into a human being by the witch’s death.

The fairytale’s last sentence is again evidence for the assumption that brother desires his sister, ‘and so brother and sister lived happily ever after’. [45] Sister obviously does not share her live with her husband, the king whose love restored her, but with her brother. This seems to be the only way for them to be happy.

To sum it all up, Metamorphosis and Brother and Sister doubtlessly deal with transformations and are fantastic narratives in Todorov’s sense. Especially the fairytale applies to that having the witch as a fantastic character who controls human destiny.

Dealing with the theme of sexual desire, Metamorphosis conforms to that more explicitly although there are several textual evidences in Brother and Sister that indicate an incestuous relationship between the siblings, too.

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