Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Book Review: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." - page 1

Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman with a problem. He hates his job, he has to support his ungrateful family and he's recently devolved into a bug. This story isn't just about Gregor though, it's also a study into family dynamics and how people can turn on one another when pushed to the limit. His family has a hard time accepting his "condition" and that's when things begin to go downhill.

The Good:

This book begins much like "The Shipping News" in that the story arc is reversed with the climax taking place at the beginning and the remainder being a slow denouement. This mirrors Gregor's descent from human to vermin both physically and mentally, a descent from civilization into isolation.

This story is told in the same vein as classic transformation tales and there's an interesting parallel in Ovid's "Metamorphosis" in the story of Arachnee. But Gregor's story isn't typical in that he undergoes a negative transformation. Kafka says Gregor had been suffering from "unsettling dreams" but it explains nothing. We're not meant to understand why Gregor transforms though we still question it as his family does. They end up transforming as well, forced to change thanks to Gregor's "condition". His sister ends up getting a job and his parents change from "Mom" and "Dad" to Mr. and Mrs. Samsa as they become more removed from their son, forgetting he was ever human.

While this book has been analyzed from every angle I did think it was interesting to note that Kafka never really says "cockroach". The English translation says "monstrous vermin" and the original German says "insect" or "bug" and yet we associate Gregor turning into a cockroach, a most grotesque bug. Perhaps subconsciously, readers see Gregor having fallen so far that he becomes something unanimously hated. This may have been Kafka intent because we do see Gregor's actions become parasitic. He lives off of his family, depending on them for almost everything.

There are various ideas about how Gregor's condition is reflected in Kafka's own isolation and daddy issues. To be sure, Gregor's family's acceptance of him in his current form slowly deteriorates. Their true natures are revealed in how they adapt, financially and emotionally to the situation. Gregor also, begins to deteriorate, his mind becoming more "bug-like" over time, the status of his room reflected in his own personal hygiene.

The Bad:

Why was Gregor bending over backwards to help support his family? His sister was good for nothing and his father seemed ungrateful for the money his son brought in.
"And was his sister now supposed to work-who for all her seventeen years was still a child and whom it would be such a pity to deprive of the life she had led until now, which had consisted of wearing pretty clothes, sleeping late, helping in the house, enjoying a few modest amusements, and above all playing the violin?" If Gregor had to go to all the trouble of being a traveling salesman the least his sister could do was stop buying pretty dressed and pull her own weight by having a job. If she wants to study music that's fine but don't make your brother put his back out trying to pay for it.

If you're into fast dialogue, vicious action and exciting description then maybe this isn't the book for you. The slow pacing and plodding characters make this book feel longer than it is. There were also some overlong, confusing sentences that weren't worth the effort to figure out. In all it's a very dry read with various unanswered questions that some may find frustrating.

The whole family including Gregor, seem far too calm about the situation. There was that initial panic about him but they seemed to settle down too quickly.

The Ugly:

I'm not a fan of bugs, especially cockroaches so if you're not into bugs then either skip those parts or skip this book entirely.


Rating: 2.5/5

2 comments:

Seresecros said...

Blegh! I say blegh to this. All books should be mandated to contain at least one high-speed car chase.

theduckthief said...

Or at least one slow train chase. I take it you didn't like "The Metamorphosis"?