25 November 2007

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The problem of interpreting Kafka's Metamorphosis is two-fold: one, it lends itself to a variety of interpretations; two, it's been interpretated and discussed so many times that even those who haven't read it have thoughts on its meaning. What I've always found striking about the book is the transformation of the family after Gregor's metamorphosis into a bug.

Prior to the metamorphosis, and hence prior to the opening of the book, Gregor's father, mother, and sister were rather useless. All three relied on Gregor to support them, and while readers are given the impression that this is due to some rational explanation such as physical problems, age consideration, etc., the conclusion of the book clearly indicates that all three are capable of work.

The father failed in a previous business adventure, leaving the family in debt and Gregor responsible for paying it off. Gregor worked hard to do so and eventually Gregor "earned enough to meet the expenses of the entire family and did so" but the family "had simply grown used to it." They expected it and seemed perfectly comfortable to let Gregor continue in a job he disliked, which forced him from his home for long periods of time, with no feelings of guilt. This easy allowance of one person to take on the burdens of an entire family is so antithetical to my philosophy that I am absolutely disgusted by the family almost immediately when reading the book.

When Gregor is turned into a bug and no longer capable of working, each member of the family gets a job which is "entirely satisfactory and seem[s] to be particularly promising." Despite the many, many interpretations possible, I choose (today) to read the book as a reminder that if everyone pulls his own weight and takes control of his own life, the world will be a happier place. It's also, in my opinion, a slight admonishment of those who allow themselves to take on responsibility for others. After all, Gregor had to be forcibly removed from the family in order for his father, sister, and mother to become independent entities - and he dies, in part, because when they are finally able to take care of themselves, there is no longer a reason for him to exist.

I perfectly realize and can even appreciate the other interpretations: the Freudian look at Kafka's relationship with his own father, the social criticism of the way those who are different are treated, a look at the effects of isolation and loneliness, a metaphorical look at the writing process, a criticism of the bourgeois life, etc. and perhaps tomorrow I will have a different outlook on the book. And that, when it comes down to it, is the insight of literary interpretation: How a book is interpreted reveals more about the reader than the author.

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