Kafka and Junebugs

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

One of the most famous opening lines in literature is in this book: "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin." Not the nicest of beginnings, but it certainly does set the story up. If it had been any longer than three chapters I wouldn't have finished it - I hate all bugs - but I figured I could force my way through that much, and I did, with a four day pause mid-book. One of the stupidest things I've ever done in my life is to read this during junebug season. I rarely go out after dark till those miserable creatures are gone, but reading this was like inviting them into the house. My skin will be crawling for the next 2-3 weeks.

I'm still trying to understand why this is considered an important novel, some say the best of the twentieth century. I guess that's why they're professors and professional reviewers and I'm just an "ordinary reader". I did enjoy the writing, enough to read more of Kafka when I get over this one, and I do grasp the concept of Gregor feeling like he's developed a hard shell and become alien to his family, but I find it a most uncomfortable metaphor. I'm sure people who like bugs, and I'm told there are such people, will see it differently.

For those who haven't read it here's the story line: Gregor lives in a flat with his parents and sister, who have begun to take him and his financial support for granted. The day he wakes up as a bug, (for which we are never given any explanation), and he fails to come out of his room for breakfast, his mother's first concern is that he'll be late for work. In essence he has become to them just a paycheck.

As they pound on his door, he realizes that he will have to face them sooner or later so he manages to get the door open and they see him. He's a big bug - probably 4 ft long or so, not something you can get rid of with a fly swatter - and his family finds him repugnant. Their reaction is mild when you consider what has happened. I can't fathom why they think it is still Gregor. I might have thought it was some awful thing that had come and devoured him, but never that it was him transformed.

His sister starts giving him food and they keep him in his room, cleaning around him and going to bed as usual every night. That floored me. Sure he's locked in, but in a reality where a guy can wake up as a bug for no reason are you really going to trust that he'll stay behind a lock and key?

His body changed instantly, but his mind took longer. At first he was still himself, but over time he started thinking like an insect or at least responding by instinct like an insect. He found he didn't like the same foods he did before, that he enjoyed walking upside down on the ceiling and hiding in dark spaces. As far as I can tell he never fully loses his human reasoning.

Eventually Gregor's family gets weary of living with the stress of his presence, they lose sympathy for him, stop feeding him and talk about getting rid of him. Gregor feels guilty about not earning a paycheck and for the stress he's brought them, but he's also resentful because in his mind he's still Gregor, part bug, but also part of the family. As they recognize the need to provide for themselves they each find something they can do to earn money and Gregor becomes unnecessary.

I wouldn't even attempt to analyze this story for anyone else. It's been done a thousand times and I still have questions:

  • Why does the family accept Gregor's metamorphosis so calmly?
  • Is Kafka saying that what we are on the outside will determine what we become on the inside? Or vice versa? Or neither?
  • Is it all about how we treat people who are different than us?
  • Is it all about insanity? Did Gregor simply wake up one morning, after a period of  isolation and self-disgust, believing he had become something repulsive to everyone around him?
  • Why is his family portrayed as better off after he's gone? Wasn't he being a dutiful son by taking care of them?
  • How do they move on with their lives without him so easily?

The only good things about this are that I can cross it off my Guilt List and that I'll now recognize references to it in other books. Other than that I never want to look at it or talk about it again. Ever.

PS - for those of you unfamiliar with junebugs, I looked for an online picture of one to post but I couldn't stand it. They are ugly, hard shelled, winged and about an inch long. They are drawn to light and sit on our window screens, doors and steps, buzzing maliciously and flapping their stupid wings. We get them from mid-May to mid-June. They are sticky and will get stuck in hair or on clothes. One night a few years ago I drove in and couldn't get out of the car because there were hundreds of them on the side of the house, on the driveway and all over the back door and steps. I'm making myself absolutely sick so I have to stop now.


Anonymous said...

Gregor was already an outcast before he changed into a bug. His family never really needed him - in fact, they are happier when he is finally gone, because now they are more productive. All of his family were just lazily waiting for the day to pass. Now they are independant.
It is not about him isolating himslef and therefore developing the hard shell of a bug. He really wishes to be part of the family - just think of the scene when he gets jealous over those three guests.
I think it's about being a little bit selfish at times, taking a little bit care of yourself and your wishes sometimes so you don't end up being a stranger to yourself and turning into something you actually abhor.

If you want to read something else of Kafka I'd recommend "the Judgement" - another story about family matters but without bugs :)

Ordinary Reader said...

juleschka - thanks, I'll add Judgement to my list!

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