Themeta­mor­pho­sis: A Story of Alien­ation

Themeta­mor­pho­sis (Ger­man: Diev­er­wand­lung) tells the story of a man who trans­forms into an in­sect one night, be­comes de­spised by his fam­ily and is fi­nally dis­posed of like rub­bish af­ter dy­ing in agony.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by David Ball

English-amer­i­can poet W.H. Au­den once likened Franz Kafka to Dante, Shake­speare and Goethe as the sin­gle most im­por­tant writer of his age. Kafka is re­garded as the founder of mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture and a pi­o­neer of ex­pres­sion­ism. His most fa­mous work, The Meta­mor­pho­sis (Ger­man: Die Ver­wand­lung), tells the story of a man who trans­forms into an in­sect one night, be­comes de­spised by his fam­ily and is fi­nally dis­posed of like rub­bish af­ter dy­ing in agony.

The novella opens with the fa­mous line: “As Gre­gor Samsa awoke one morn­ing from un­easy dreams he found him­self trans­formed in his bed into a gi­gan­tic in­sect.” In this al­le­gor­i­cal, fan­tasy world, Kafka pushed cold-heart­ed­ness to ex­tremes, writ­ing, as it were, a pe­cu­liar el­egy on the waste­land of Western men­tal­ity, whilst also re­veal­ing his own wor­ried, heavy heart.

Life of Iso­la­tion

In 1947, soon af­ter the 20-year- old Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez went to study law at univer­sity, he be­gan writ­ing. At the time, he was a vo­ra­cious reader of lit­er­a­ture. On read­ing the first line of The Meta­mor­pho­sis, he once said: “I didn’t know any­one was al­lowed to write things like that.” From then on, he be­came stub­bornly at­tached to the novella and its au­thor, ab­sorb­ing

its style of writ­ing. Twenty years on, Márquez went on to write the mag­i­cal-re­al­ist novel One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude, which made him one of the best-known au­thors in the world. In a sense, Márquez owed his suc­cess to Franz Kafka, since with­out The Meta­mor­pho­sis, there would be no One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude.

Com­pared with the world’s other top writ­ers, Franz Kafka led an ex­cep­tion­ally or­di­nary life. He was born into a Jew­ish fam­ily in Prague, the cap­i­tal of the King­dom of Bo­hemia and then part of the Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian Em­pire, in 1883. His fa­ther had served in the army, later be­com­ing a mer­chant, and was known for be­ing un­bear­ably rude not only to his em­ploy­ees but also to his own chil­dren. Kafka was there­fore timid around his fa­ther and grad­u­ally be­came shy and with­drawn. At the age of 18, Kafka went to the Univer­sity of Prague to study chem­istry, later switch­ing to law, and ob­tain­ing the de­gree of Doc­tor of Law. In 1908 he joined the Worker’s Ac­ci­dent In­sur­ance In­sti­tute as an in­sur­ance of­fi­cer where he first pub­lished sev­eral works in the lit­er­ary jour­nal Hype­r­ion.

In 1912, Kafka be­gan to write the novel Der Ver­schol­lene (known as Amerika or The Man Who Dis­ap­peared), and went to Leipzig and Weimar with his friend Max Brod. Later, he stayed in a moun­tain town alone to write Der Process ( The Trial) and The Meta­mor­pho­sis. Two years later in 1914, he got en­gaged to Felice Bauer in Ber­lin but broke off the en­gage­ment less than a month later.

In 1917, Kafka wrote Beim Bau der Chi­ne­sis­chen Mauer ( The Great Wall of China) and got en­gaged to Bauer for the sec­ond time, only to break off the en­gage­ment again at the end of that year. He was re­garded as ec­cen­tric by his fam­ily, es­pe­cially his fa­ther, who could not un­der­stand his son’s in­ter­est in writ­ing. His au­thor­i­tar­ian fa­ther would of­ten or­der around and re­proach his shop as­sis­tants at work, and crit­i­cise his own chil­dren daily at home. The only thing that he cared about was his busi­ness and so could not fathom his son’s de­sire to be a writer, much less give him any sup­port. In ad­di­tion, he took a pa­tri­ar­chal ap­proach to­wards his chil­dren, mean­ing Franz suf­fered huge psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure from an early age. In 1919, Kafka wrote Let­ter to His Fa­ther, which was more than 100 pages in length but he never posted it.

In the let­ter, Kafka de­scribed the men­tal trauma he ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing his boyhood, at which his fa­ther just cast mer­ci­less ridicule. He also men­tioned that he was fond of a Jew­ish ac­tress, but his fa­ther dis­dain­fully com­pared her to a bug.

In 1923, Kafka fell in love with Dora Dia­mant, a 25-year-old kinder­garten teacher, but failed to get his fa­ther’s ap­proval. His fa­ther merely sug­gested to him that she must have worn some kind of spe­cial shirt, like other women of Prague do, to se­duce him and make him want to marry her. One year later Kafka died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and was buried in Prague. As his cof­fin was be­ing low­ered into the grave, Dora tried to jump in with it, but was held back by oth­ers present.

Dur­ing his life, Kafka was en­gaged three times, but broke them off each time and so re­mained un­mar­ried un­til his death. He of­ten felt fright­ened, lonely and de­spon­dent, as if he was en­veloped in a sense of cri­sis. How­ever, he was also strongly at­tached to this men­tal­ity— afraid that mar­ried life would rid him of his fear of soli­tude, which was the source of his writ­ing.

Kafka never in­tended to pub­lish the ma­jor­ity of his works; writ­ing was a pas­time and a purely pri­vate ac­tiv­ity that he did alone. Be­fore his death, he asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts. How­ever, Brod ig­nored his re­quest and went on to pub­lish them all. In 1931, The Great Wall of China, the first post­hu­mous col­lec­tion of short sto­ries by Kafka, was pub­lished. This was fol­lowed five years later by the sixvol­ume Novellen aus Böh­men ( Novel­las from Bo­hemia) com­piled by Brod; and in 1958, the nine-vol­ume Ge­sam­melte Werke ( Col­lected Works of Kafka) edited by Brod was pub­lished. Kafka was by no means a pro­lific writer, but his works have had a pro­found in­flu­ence on the di­rec­tion of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture. His nov­els are rich in sym­bol­ism and ex­plore a range of themes from ab­sur­dity, ir­ra­tional­ity and alien­ation, to anx­i­ety and lone­li­ness.

Kafka re­mained vir­tu­ally un­known dur­ing his life­time, but peo­ple grad­u­ally recog­nised the value of his works af­ter they were pub­lished. At the time, a craze for all things Kafka spread across Europe which has lasted un­til to­day. A brief com­ment by W.H. Au­den helps ex­plain why peo­ple are still in­ter­ested in this sem­i­nal au­thor: “Kafka is im­por­tant to us be­cause his predica­ment is the predica­ment of modern man.” Ja­pa­nese writer Haruki Mu­rakami is an­other fan of Kafka, and even named one of his nov­els “Kafka on the Shore.” In ad­di­tion, many Chi­nese writ­ers have also been in­flu­enced by the au­thor, in­clud­ing Ge Fei and Yu Hua. To com­mem­o­rate the writer, two Amer­i­can as­tronomers even named an as­teroid— dis­cov­ered in 1983—“3412 Kafka.”

Bizarre Trans­for­ma­tion

Dur­ing Kafka’s life­time, the Aus­troHun­gar­ian Em­pire be­gan to crum­ble, and, be­cause he was deeply in­flu­enced by the phi­los­o­phy of Ni­et­zsche, he stood aloof from po­lit­i­cal events. There­fore, his work typ­i­cally fea­tures an iso­lated and des­per­ate pro­tag­o­nist within a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment told through bizarre im­agery and

sym­bol­ism. He flour­ished mainly around the pe­riod lead­ing up to, dur­ing and af­ter World War I. At that time, be­cause of the eco­nomic de­pres­sion, so­cial cor­rup­tion and poverty, an air of des­per­a­tion hov­ered across the whole of Europe which con­trib­uted to Kafka’s agony and lone­li­ness. As such, alien­ation, lone­li­ness and fear are the cen­tral themes in his oeu­vre.

Kafka of­ten em­ployed al­le­gories in his writ­ing and fre­quently cre­ated fan­tas­ti­cal im­ages. How­ever, once read­ers grasp the metaphor that lies be­hind, they are left with a vivid sense of pro­fun­dity. Us­ing his inim­itable style, pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism and de­tailed de­scrip­tions, Kafka cre­ated works punc­tu­ated by fan­tas­tic or in­cred­i­ble el­e­ments. His novella The Meta­mor­pho­sis is just such a work: A sales­man awakes one morn­ing and finds he has been turned into a bug. This trans­for­ma­tion re­flected peo­ple’s true state of life in Europe at the time, who suf­fered from im­mense phys­i­cal and men­tal pres­sure, and as a con­se­quence, had be­come de­ranged and alien­ated.

Gre­gor Samsa, a trav­el­ling sales­man, spends his life busily rush­ing from place to place, earn­ing money to sup­port his fam­ily. Af­ter his fa­ther goes bank­rupt, he works hard to be­come a suc­cess­ful sales­man in or­der to al­low his par­ents and sis­ter to en­joy a good qual­ity of life again. As the el­dest child in his fam­ily, Gre­gor’s mother is full of praise for him and his sis­ter loves him dearly. How­ever, one morn­ing he wakes up and finds he has turned into a gi­ant in­sect. The in­ci­dent deals a heavy blow to Gre­gor and his whole fam­ily. His fa­ther is grief­stricken be­cause the cred­i­tors will come; his mother be­comes de­pressed be­cause she must take on the bur­den of the house­hold chores de­spite her fail­ing health; and his sis­ter feels sor­row as her dream of en­ter­ing the mu­sic con­ser­va­tory is shat­tered. The fam­ily’s re­ac­tions are pro­voked not at the loss of a rel­a­tive but by the fact that they can­not en­joy the com­fort­able life they had be­come ac­cus­tomed to. Gre­gor, on the other hand, feels help­less and wor­ried. Af­ter his fa­ther re­alises that Gre­gor can­not make money to sup­port the fam­ily, he “clenched his fist with a hos­tile ex­pres­sion, as if he wished to push Gre­gor back into his room.” And, one time when Gre­gor gets stuck in the door­frame, his fa­ther “gives him one re­ally strong lib­er­at­ing push from be­hind, and he scur­ried, bleed­ing se­verely, far into the in­te­rior of his room.”

Af­ter he trans­forms into a bug, Gre­gor lives the life of an in­sect but re­tains his hu­man mind. Although he loses his job, he still wor­ries about his fa­ther’s debts and how to send his sis­ter to the con­ser­va­tory. A few days later, how­ever, his whole fam­ily be­gins to see him as a bur­den. This gi­ant bug, which still thought like a hu­man and could un­der­stand hu­man words, creeps for­ward to see his mother, but at Gre­gor’s ap­pear­ance his fa­ther be­comes so an­gry that he hurls ap­ples at him, and one ap­ple “drove into Gre­gor’s back re­ally hard.” From then on, the rot­ten ap­ples are closely linked with Gre­gor’s fate as they re­main lodged in his back un­til his ul­ti­mate demise.

In or­der to sur­vive, Gre­gor’s fam­ily all have to get jobs. Slowly they be­gin to lose any pa­tience for the in­sect and Gre­gor’s sis­ter even pro­poses driv­ing him out of the home. Faced by the cal­lous in­dif­fer­ence of his rel­a­tives and liv­ing in near-con­stant cold and hunger, Gre­gor con­tracts an ill­ness. His head sinks all the way down, and his last breath flows out weakly from his nos­trils. Anx­ious and guilty, he bears the mis­for­tune of his fam­ily, but the great­est mis­for­tune is that he is dis­carded by so­ci­ety and his fam­ily and dies in obliv­ion. His fam­ily are greatly re­lieved at his death, with his fa­ther say­ing “Well, now we can give thanks to God” and his mother hav­ing a “me­lan­choly smile on her face.”

Gre­gor’s ex­pe­ri­ence in the novel sym­bol­ises the fate of an unim­por­tant per­son at the bot­tom of so­ci­ety in an age that is ma­te­ri­ally rich but lack­ing in hu­man­ity. Through the fan­tas­tic story of a man’s trans­for­ma­tion into an in­sect, Kafka de­picted peo­ple fo­cused on profit and in­dif­fer­ent to true hu­man­ity. These peo­ple fi­nally be­come de­ranged un­der so­cial pres­sures, thus re­flect­ing the re­al­ity of so­cial life un­der cap­i­tal­ism. No­bel Prize win­ning au­thor Elias Canetti once said: “In The Meta­mor­pho­sis, Kafka reached the height of his mas­tery: he wrote some­thing which he could never sur­pass, be­cause there is noth­ing which The Meta­mor­pho­sis could be sur­passed by—one of the few great and per­fect po­etic works of this cen­tury.”

Magic Real­ism

At the end of the 19th cen­tury, and es­pe­cially af­ter the First World War,

the de­fects in cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­eties be­gan to ap­pear. Con­stant tur­moil and fierce com­pe­ti­tion raised doubts about tra­di­tional val­ues, and Western pes­simism—first recog­nised in Friedrich Ni­et­zsche’s claim that “God is dead”—be­gan to take root. There­fore, a mood of dis­il­lu­sion spread across the western world. It was the im­pact of this main­stream ide­ol­ogy that al­lowed Kafka to gain in­sights into re­al­ity. Dur­ing his early teens, Kafka en­joyed read­ing the works of Ni­et­zsche and Dar­win, and was also deeply in­flu­enced by China’s Lao-zhuang phi­los­o­phy. As he ex­am­ined the world around him, he could not free him­self from a sense of des­per­a­tion and so his de­pic­tion of the world ex­pressed this mood.

The Meta­mor­pho­sis strikes read­ers as fan­tas­tic and bizarre, but con­tains a pro­found morality and wis­dom, dis­play­ing the alien­ation of man within a cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety.

The nar­ra­tor of The Meta­mor­pho­sis records the speech and ac­tions ob­jec­tively, like a video cam­era. The de­scrip­tions that ap­pear in the book are sur­pris­ing and un­ex­pected, es­trang­ing Gre­gor from the read­ers’ world. How­ever, read­ers feel sur­prised that Gre­gor would suc­cumb so read­ily to his an­i­mal sta­tus. In terms of writ­ing, Kafka said, “My heart yearns to get more in­volved in the story, but I have to try and stay out­side. That is re­ally hard work.” Kafka at­tempted to present a panorama of some sur­real place, an imag­i­nary, dream­like space, or a mys­te­ri­ous world. But once this sym­bolic world took shape, it would al­ways show some kind of odd fea­ture.

Kafka was afraid that the pub­lisher, Kurt Wolff Ver­lag, would il­lus­trate the book with a pic­ture of an in­sect, so he wrote to him say­ing: “The in­sect it­self is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a dis­tance—if you al­low me to of­fer a pro­posal, I will choose such a pic­ture: The par­ents and the sec­re­tary stand in front of a closed door, or, bet­ter, the par­ents and sis­ter stay in a well-lighted room with an open door lead­ing to an­other dark room.”

In the novel Kafka ac­cu­rately de­scribed the char­ac­ters’ men­tal states, pro­duc­ing vivid char­ac­ters. He nar­rated but did not com­ment and ex­pressed strong emo­tions us­ing plain lan­guage. The con­cise, some­what-flat style he em­ploys be­comes more pow­er­ful due to the use of al­le­gory. No one can match Kafka in terms of us­ing such mat­ter-of-fact lan­guage to de­scribe an in­cred­i­ble and fan­tas­ti­cal trans­for­ma­tion. It is this un­ro­man­tic style that Kafka used to as­so­ciate ra­tio­nal­ity with ir­ra­tional­ity, and the bizarre with the ev­ery­day.

In The Meta­mor­pho­sis, Kafka de­scribed the ap­pear­ance of its pro­tag­o­nist in minute de­tail, for ex­am­ple, “his brown, arched ab­domen di­vided up into rigid bow­like sec­tions” and “his nu­mer­ous legs, piti­fully thin in com­par­i­son to the rest of his cir­cum­fer­ence.” Kafka adopted the pro­tag­o­nist’s per­spec­tive, en­abling read­ers to feel in­volved in Gre­gor’s predica­ment from the very be­gin­ning. Through the eyes and ears of Gre­gor, the read­ers wit­ness the changes in his fam­ily af­ter the meta­mor­pho­sis, and sense his help­less­ness in the face of his fam­ily’s mis­for­tune.

The Meta­mor­pho­sis con­tains many de­tailed and re­al­is­tic de­scrip­tions. For in­stance: “In or­der to spare her even this sight, one day he dragged the sheet on his back onto the couch (this task took him four hours) and ar­ranged it in such a way that he was now com­pletely con­cealed and his sis­ter, even if she bent down, could not see him.” De­tails such as this faith­fully re­flect the pro­tag­o­nist’s undy­ing af­fec­tion to­wards his fam­ily. “From the win­dow he wit­nessed the be­gin­ning of the gen­eral dawn­ing out­side. Then with­out will­ing it, his head sank all the way down, and from his nos­trils flowed out weakly out his last breath.” At the end of his life, Gre­gor is still at­tached to, and even loves, his fam­ily but “…his own thought that he had to dis­ap­pear was, if pos­si­ble, even more de­ci­sive than his sis­ter’s.” For him, dis­ap­pear­ing meant free­ing his fam­ily from their fear—a men­tal­ity which also re­flected his own des­per­a­tion.

Over the past 100 years, The Meta­mor­pho­sis has had a pro­found in­flu­ence on world lit­er­a­ture and con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture in par­tic­u­lar. The novel en­light­ened Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, whose later works in­spired such Chi­nese au­thors as Mo Yan and Chen Zhong­shi, spread­ing the seed of magic real­ism among many of the world’s best writ­ers.

Trans­la­tors have played a crit­i­cal role in this process. In 1979, the first is­sue of World Lit­er­a­ture pub­lished The Meta­mor­pho­sis trans­lated by Li Wen­jun, from which, count­less Chi­nese read­ers first en­coun­tered the artis­tic charms of the novella. This is­sue also con­tained “Kafka and His Works” writ­ten by Ding Fang and Shi Wen—the first ar­ti­cle in China tak­ing a com­pre­hen­sive and ob­jec­tive look at the au­thor. In fact, Ding Fang was a pseu­do­nym of Ye Ting­fang, a renowned ex­pert on Kafka; and Shi Wen was the pen name of Li Wen­jun. Over the past sev­eral decades, many trans­la­tors and ex­perts in Ger­man lit­er­a­ture such as Zhang Rongchang, Ye Ting­fang, Xie Yingy­ing and Zhao Den­grong have all tried their hands at trans­lat­ing The Meta­mor­pho­sis. Of the var­i­ous trans­la­tions of the work, Li Wen­jun’s is con­sid­ered the most in­flu­en­tial, pop­u­lar and widely ac­claimed in China.

The Meta­mor­pho­sis is the gem in Franz Kafka’s lit­er­ary works. Kafka de­scribed—in a fan­tas­tic and hu­mor­ous tone— Gre­gor’s anx­i­ety, fright, lone­li­ness and de­spair, as well as his wretched life af­ter he trans­forms into an in­sect. All in all, this led to the vivid im­age of a gi­ant in­sect tak­ing root in the minds of Chi­nese read­ers from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other.

The­trial (1962) di­rected by Or­son Welles, who also wrote the screen­play based on the novel of the same name by Franz Kafka

Leni played by Romy Sch­nei­der in The­trial (1962) di­rected by Or­son Welles

Bronze statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

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