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Analysis of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka from an Existentialist Perspective

The world has changed dramatically since the Industrial Revolution and the entrenchment of capitalism. Many novelists and poets have lamented the turn that society took in the centuries that followed, citing an increasing disconnection between human beings and a shift in focus from ethical to material values. This essay will analyze how Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis is an existential statement and a metaphor for a cold capitalist world. Before beginning this essay, one must understand who the author was and why he might have been motivated to write The Metamorphosis.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, in an area of Austria-Hungary known as Bohemia, which is now considered part of the Czech Republic. His parents, Hermann and Julie Kafka, were middle-class, German-speaking Jews, of whom Kafka's mother was the better educated and from the more respected and affluent background. Despite her superior socioeconomic roots, Julie was a meek woman who failed to stand up for her son in the face of his father's abusive treatment of him. It is not clear whether this was because Julie was equally afraid of Hermann Kafka as her son or whether she was simply in awe of and/or madly in love with him. Either way, she neglected to protect the youngster from his father's wrath and intimidation, with the result that Franz grew up in a state of abject fear that he internalized and which would stay with him forever.

Kafka's two younger brothers, Heinrich and George, died in childbirth, leaving the young Franz as the eldest child and only son, with three younger sisters named Gabrielle, Valerie, and Ottilie. He was forever haunted by the death of his siblings and cowed by his overbearing, psychologically abusive father. Kafka described his father as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature," and felt that he never measured up to Hermann's manliness and strength. Franz recalled one particularly traumatic incident that he experienced as a small boy, in which he woke up thirsty and cried out to his parents to please bring him a glass of water. His father, infuriated by his request, dragged the young child out of bed and deposited him on the outside balcony in the bitter cold. Kafka reported having nightmares about such scenarios for years afterward and being deeply fearful of his father his entire life. Five years before his death at the age of 36, he wrote a heartfelt letter to his father to try and explain his feelings and, it appears, reach some peace or resolution about their fractured relationship (Nervi, 2021).

Franz Kafka had ambitions to be a writer from a young age, but his father disapproved of his goals, and Kafka decided to bow to his elder's will. He studied chemistry and law and, afterward, worked at a law firm and, later, an insurance agency. These careers never fulfilled him, nor did he find happiness in love, instead having several unsatisfying and unsuccessful liaisons with various women. He was also distressed by his powerful and uncontrollable sexual urges and his overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. He continued to write privately throughout his life, compiling three collections of short stories of which three tales have been recognized as particularly important and brilliant works of literature, namely, The Trial, The Castle, and America. Sadly, Kafka fell ill with tuberculosis and died at the age of 41, without ever gaining any literary fame. It was only after his death that he was recognized as an exceptional author.

The darkness of Kafka's psychological world is reflected in his writings and epitomized by the term "Kafkaesque," which refers to the unsettling, nightmarish, and bizarre qualities of Kafka's work. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains that "Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Czech-born German-language writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century. Kafka's work is characterized by nightmarish settings in which characters are crushed by nonsensical, blind authority. Thus, the word Kafkaesque is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening." Once one has looked into Franz Kafka's background and gained some understanding of the man and the emotional torment that fueled his creative fires, it is easier to understand the cryptic story of Gregor Samsa related in The Metamorphosis.

To give a brief synopsis of the story, Gregor Samsa is a man who works hard at a sales job that he does not enjoy to support his parents and his sister, Greta. One day, Gregor wakes up to find that he has been transformed into an ugly bug. Initially, Gregor revels in the fact that he does not have to go out to work and reflects on how much he despises his position as a salesperson and the daily grind that has defined his existence until this point. However, when his family and manager discover his metamorphosis, they are horrified. His manager runs away, his mother passes out cold, and his father tries to swat him to death. After these encounters, Gregor retreats to an existence living under the couch, where he relies on his only remaining ally in the family, his sister Greta, to throw him food scraps on which he survives. From his miserable hovel, he listens to his family bitterly discussing how they are destitute because he can no longer support them. They continue to voice their disgust for him, and his father once again tries to eliminate him, this time pelting him with apples. Without Gregor's income to support them, the Samsa's decide to take in some tenants to help with the bills. One day, Greta begins to play the violin for the three male lodgers, but Gregor makes an appearance in his terrifying giant bug form and scares the tenants, who move out immediately and retract their payment. At this point, Greta turns on Gregor and insists that he needs to leave the house as she can no longer tolerate his abhorrent presence. In despair at losing the last member of his family to have shown him any loyalty, Gregor once again crawls under the couch, only this time to die. After understanding the plot of The Metamorphosis, one can then begin to analyze it in terms of its deeper meanings and inherent analogies.

In The Metamorphosis, Kafka constructs a metaphor for the alienation and suffering that often accompanies human existence in a cold, capitalist world. At the outset of the story, Gregor is a model capitalist citizen, dutifully keeping his head down and enduring a job that he hates in order to eke out a living that will support his family. It is later revealed that his parents and sister have been entirely apathetic about contributing to the household income before Gregor is transformed into a monstrous insect; they have been content to lounge around and live off his hard-earned wages. Kafka writes, "Gregor's only concern had been to devote everything he had in order to allow his family to forget as quickly as possible the business misfortune which had brought them all into a state of complete hopelessness. They took the money with thanks, and he happily surrendered it, but the special warmth was gone." With this statement, the writer implies that the nature of capitalism, in which money is paramount, often leads to dysfunctional interpersonal relationships in which the focus is either on what can be extracted from others or what one needs to do to support dependents. The real tragedy in the story is that when Gregor finds himself inexplicably changed into a bug, his parents shun him mercilessly immediately, and even his sister Greta, who initially tries to help him, eventually betrays him.

The story portrays a reality in which the protagonist, i.e., Gregor Samsa, feels utterly worn down by a job that he hates, a family that leeches off him, and the disconnected nature of capitalist society after the Industrial Revolution. However, he continues to go through the motions of his life, day after day, to look after the very people who turn on him as soon as the going gets tough. It is no coincidence that Gregor turns into a bug; his metamorphosis is a statement from Kafka about how life in capitalist society is both demeaning and devoid of meaning (Kohzadi et al., 2012). Some literature experts have raised the notion that this story is a portrayal of Kafka's psyche and that the "bug" is simply a combined metaphor for the feelings of alienation, disconnection, repression, and self-loathing that many people living in modern capitalist societies experience on an existential level. As Susan Bernofsky says of Gregor's character in her 2014 article, On Translating Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," "He has worked himself to the point of utter exhaustion to pay off his parents' debts, and his grotesque metamorphosis is the physical manifestation of his abasement." Bernofsky goes on to say that "Gregor has only himself to blame for the wretchedness of his situation since he has willingly accepted wretchedness as it was thrust upon him. Like other of Kafka's doomed protagonists, he errs by failing to act, instead allowing himself to be acted upon."

In conclusion, The Metamorphosis is a bleak and unsettling tale representing the emptiness and isolation of human existence in a capitalist world where the desire for wealth and power outweighs the value of human connections. At the end of the story, Gregor seems to believe that the only option he has to deal with such a cruel world is to curl up into a ball and die. With this analogy, Kafka makes a powerful statement about the brutal nature of modern, money-driven society on the human psyche.

References

Nervi, M., 2021. The Kafka Project | Biography | Kafka's Life (1883-1924). [online] Kafka.org. Available at:

<http://www.kafka.org/index.php?biography>.

 

Bernofsky, S., 2014. On Translating Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." [online] The New Yorker. Available at:

<https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-translating-kafkas-the-             metamorphosis> .


Merriam-webster.com. 2014. Definition of KAFKAESQUE. [online] Available at:

<https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Kafkaesque>.

 

Kohzadi, Hamedreza & Azizmohammadi, Fatemeh & Nouri, Mahboubeh. (2012). A Study of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. 2. 1600-1607.

 

Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. Franz Kafka | Biography, Books, The Metamorphosis, The Trial, & Facts. [online] Available at:

<https://www.britannica.com/biography/Franz-                      Kafka#:~:text=Franz%20Kafka%2C%20(born%20July%203,%3B%20The%20Metamorphosis)%E2%80%94express%20the>.

 

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Genius or Insanity: Darl Bundren

           When looking at the many great works of American literature that have been released in the past century, it is nearly impossible to miss William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." Serving as the inspiration for countless other stories, poems, ideas, and perhaps even philosophies, one can see that the impact this piece has had on the world at large is nothing short of astounding. That being said, in order to inspire to such a high degree as the piece has, one must take note of the fact that it relies on a series of characters that help to push forward the story's plot and bring life to the events of the work, with Darl Bundren perhaps being the most enigmatic of the bunch. Bundren seems to walk a careful line between something that resembles genius, as well as that of pure and utter insanity. Whether it be his apparent clairvoyance, his intense opposition to the journey to Jefferson, or perhaps even his assorted pontifications, it is clear that Bundren is wise beyond his years. To begin, one should first start with a brief synopsis of what precisely takes place in the novel to set the context in which a character like Bundren can thrive.

"As I Lay Dying" is a macabre tale about a massively dysfunctional, highly impoverished family living in rural Mississippi. The family's matriarch, Addie Bundren, is dying, and the family is preparing to make arrangements to bury her. It is her dying wish to be buried in a nearby town known as Jefferson with the rest of her family. Of course, she dies, and the plot sets off that the family will have to take something of a voyage to Jefferson to see that her wishes are carried out. The plot is outlined with subtleties, such as the fact that the family's youngest daughter is promiscuous and has fallen pregnant, that the husband of Addie, Anse, is a complete and total imbecile, and that Darl may be the wisest one of the bunch, even though he also shows signs of being clinically insane.

           The most obvious example of Darl's clear intelligence over the rest of his family is that he appears to be clairvoyant, to a degree. In other words, while his father sends him and his brother off on a trip that would almost ensure that they would lose out on the last moments of their mother's life, Darl's internal monologue reveals that he seems aware of his mother's death while on his trip, stating, "In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. Moreover, before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I do not know if I am or not" (Faulkner). This is particularly interesting, as Darl has had no connection with his home while out on his trip, and yet it appears that he is aware that his mother has finally passed. While this may have been a good hunch, it is merely part of many contextual clues that highlight Faulkner was trying to show readers that there was indeed something more to Darl's personality. Furthermore, when Darl goes as far as to burn down the barn as a means of attempting to get his family to not travel to Jefferson, one can see that he genuinely is wise beyond his years.

           The family's pilgrimage to Jefferson seems noble enough to begin with. After all, who would not want to honor their mother's dying wish of her being laid to rest with other members of her genetic legacy? That being said, by the time one reads the entirety of the book, they can see that the trip to Jefferson is just another event that causes an already fractured family unit to split even further. After all, during this time, Dewey Dell is tricked by a local man into giving him sex in exchange for an abortion. Considering how abortion was far less popular at this time than it is today, this was hardly a common occurrence, highlighting something of a supreme sense of moral degeneracy within the family’s ranks (Abortion in American History). Furthermore, during this time, Anse finds himself a new "bride," somebody he had known for what appears to be less than 24 hours. Of course, the trip to Jefferson is just another opportunity that allows the family to further implode on itself, highlighting that now that the matriarch has disappeared, all hope is lost for them to have anything that even resembles a healthy dynamic. Alas, perhaps Darl saw this coming, and it is what prompted him to make the unprecedented move of burning down the family barn.

           From the get-go, it is evident that Darl sees through the fanciful nature of the procession that his family has crafted. His profound wisdom highlights how he can see the shortsighted nature of the entire charade, and how it would likely be yet another factor contributing to his family's downfall. Furthermore, he discusses with his youngest sibling how he heard his mother state that she wished she could be "hidden from the sight of man" (Faulkner). As a result, he makes the unprecedented move of deciding to burn down the family barn. He does this for a few reasons. The first of which is likely that he realized that her honor would be protected in giving his mother a cremation, and her final wishes would be granted. Trusting her fate with the rest of the family seems somewhat ridiculous for someone as wise as Darl. Even still, this doubles up as somewhat of a crazy, impulsive move, as this is the very action that ultimately brands him as being insane. That being said, could it be that Darl is the only sane one in a group of profoundly troubled, mentally unwell individuals? Numerous studies show that madness and genius are keenly connected, and one cannot help but wonder what to make of Darl (Wolchover)? Sadly, by the end of the novel, Darl is taken away to a mental institution, perhaps serving as a more significant metaphor for how society treats those who dare to be different, or perhaps even those who dare to go against the grain in the modern world.

           It is clear why "As I Lay Dying" has become one of the most prolific literary works in existence. William Faulkner shows the reality of what it was like to be a poor Southerner at this point in history, exposing the glaring cracks in the social and family life of one particular group of people. The death of their mother amplifies these events and how the family continues to fall apart under the new, added weight, they are forced to burden in her absence. Sadly, the brightest member of the family, Darl, is ridiculed as being insane, whereas, in reality, he quite likely had more sense than everybody else in tandem with one another. Even still, there is a case to be made that he would be somewhat of a genius and somewhat of a madman. Compared with his counterparts, it is clear how he had the upper hand in terms of raw intellect. All in all, Darl Bundren walks the fine line between genius and insanity, and though a rational person may think he to be more of the former, his family members saw him as the latter.

 

References

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 1990.

Pollitt, Katha. "Abortion In American History." The Atlantic, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/05/abortion-in-american-history/376851/. Accessed 12 Mar 2020.

Wolchover, Natalie. "Why Are Genius And Madness Connected?". Livescience.Com, 2020, https://www.livescience.com/20713-genius-madness-connected.html.

 

Discussion post:

 

Central to the idea of understanding the implications of communication and media on the world at large is realizing how spatial, temporal, and cultural influences will ultimately work to change the way that people communicate with one another. Generally speaking, this should be required knowledge for anybody looking to immerse themselves into the open world of communications and rhetoric at large. To begin, one should first start off with a sound understanding of the spatial implications of how one thinks of and presents themselves, as well as how these impact the way people communicate at large.

         Technology has been integral to the very idea of communications in the past twenty-five years. With the advent of factors such as the internet, social networking, and perhaps even more archaic inventions like the phone line, it is clear that the world of communications has been drastically changed as a result. For example, today people thousands of miles apart can communicate with one another with the click of a button. Even just three decades ago, such an idea would have seemed impossible. The fact that the great majority of people in today’s society walk around with a pocket-sized device capable of such power is truly astounding. One could say that such a phenomenon decreases the spatial limits among people. People feel more connected and make decisions based upon their feeling on connectivity. For instance, one person’s actions (or ideas) are no longer isolated, but rather have the ability to be seen and shared by billions in a single instant. People no longer have to travel long distances to hear their family member’s voices, rather, they can use Facetime or WhatsApp to obtain their desired affections. Needless to say, such advents have massively impacted communications technology.     

 Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allow information to spread at rapid speeds. Frederick James has coined the term “nostalgia for the present.” James used the example of the popularity of American music in the Philippines, and the fact that some of these records have become much more popular abroad than they had ever become in their own country of production (James). Today, social media expounds this theory. Due to the fact that people can view stories or posts of people thousands of miles away and in very different social and cultural milieus from their own, there arises a strong desire for reproduction and pastiche. This is something that post-modernists themselves could have not even imagined or postulated in the post-Cold War era. Today there are young people in places such as Turkey or Japan who are inspired by “social media influencers” in the U.S. or Western Europe. They replicate their style, their content and even in some extreme cases, their voices. These figures not only entertain others but influence their behavior and even their social and political beliefs. It is because of this that dictatorial regimes fear the power of social media and other forms of hypoconnectivity. They can no longer control the flow of information in and out of their respective countries. It is also for this reason that in any time of crisis or political upheaval, dictatorial regimes block social media.

         It seems today that hypoconnectivity is actually diminishing the differences in time, space and culture among people. This is what is meant by the terms of cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization. There exists a tension between the two. On one hand, as people become more connected, they imitate each other and, in some ways, become similar, a la homogenization. On the other hand, as more information surfaces at an unthinkably rapid pace, people also become more visible. Places which were once just dots on a map can now be viewed in a much deeper way thanks to applications such as Google Maps and Google Earth. People are more aware of different languages, cultures and ideas thanks to new technology. This tension between homogenization and heterogenization will continue to persist in the years and decades to come. It seems that they will continue to grow not just simultaneously, but together.



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The World Inside of Us

         Given how common particularly heinous crimes and circumstances have become in the news media today, it might not be uncommon for one to hear about a particularly gruesome crime being committed and think to themselves “now I could never do something like that”. Indeed, while the average person normally would not think of themselves as a murderer or an arsonist, at a basic level, the capacity to do terrible things exists inside of each and every one of us, regardless of if we choose to act upon it or not. Inside each and every person there exists a capacity to do both good and bad things, where their character as a person is determined by how those choose to act upon these capacities for good and evil. This idea of one's internal capacities to do both good and evil is explored within a number of different media sources, however one can find a particularly insightful and important examination of the potential contained inside each and every individual within Louise Erdrich's novel The Round House. The novel itself follows a thirteen year old Native American boy by the name of Joe as he searches with his friends and his father for a man who viciously attacked and raped his mother. In the course of attempting to find an answer for such a question, Joe has an encounter with a priest by the name of Father Travis. Although Joe initially suspects that Father Travis might have something to do with the case, the clues he finds lead him elsewhere; although with that being said, Father Travis does appear to provide Joe with assistance of some sort. Indeed, in sharing his wisdom regarding the “good, bad, evil, perfection, death” in every person, Father Travis comes to define not only Joe as a character, but indeed, the overall moral of the story as a whole, which suggests that every person has a capacity for good and evil that they must come to master in order to grow as a person.

         While there are many important takeaways that one could draw from The Round House based in the manner that they interpret the story, one particularly important moral message can be found in a statement that Father Travis makes to Joe, where this particular message comes to encapsulate not just the character of Joe, but the moral of the story as a whole. Shortly after learning of his mother's attack, Joe begins to suspect that a priest that has recently arrived in the community was responsible for the job. With that being said, after spying on this priest, a man by the name of Father Travis, Joe and his friends come to find that Father Travis could not have possibly committed the crime. This is not the end of Father Travis' involvement in the story however, as much later Joe once again has an encounter with Father Travis where the priest shares an important bit of information with Joe. As the two talks, Father Travis warns Joe about a capacity that exists inside each and every person, describing how “in order to purify yourself, you have to understand yourself. Everything out in the world is also in you. Good, bad, evil, perfection, death, everything. So we study our souls” (Erdrich). While such a statement might initially seem like the ramblings of a religious man with little to do with the story, upon closer observation this quote tells one much about Joe, and the moral of the story as a whole. The following paragraphs will demonstrate that Joe himself is not a wholly “good” person, nor is he a wholly “evil” or “bad” person; rather, he has the capacity to do both good and evil within him, where becoming a successful and fulfilled individual lies in understanding these capacities as they exist in an individual. Such a statement could be applied to nearly every individual in the story. Readers can look at characters like Sonja, who seems to want what is best for Joe but also runs off with his money as an example of this in other characters in the story; however with that being said, such a statement is particularly relevant as it applies to the novel's main hero and protagonist in the form of the character of Joe.

         As is demonstrated by Joe's decision to help his mother in the first place despite the difficulties entailed, and his reluctance to have his friends assist him out of fear that they might be implicated in a crime, the character of Joe has within him a capacity to do good and righteous things at times. The first glimpse into Joe's character comes early in the story, following his realization that his mother has been victimized. While it is not shown to the reader until later in the story, as the son of a tribal judge Joe is likely aware of the difficulties entailed with finding a sense of justice on the reservation. Despite this, Joe resolves to help his mother and try to locate her attacker. While Joe's mother herself is likely aware of her attacker's identity, she does not share this with Joe or Bazil, as she might feel ashamed or even scare that she might be targeted for retribution. Knowing this, it falls to Joe and his father to attempt to resolve the situation, and by resolving to help his mother even when it might place him and his family in further danger, Joe demonstrates a capacity to do good things. Further evidence of the potential for moral righteousness within the character of Joe can be found in the manner in which he approaches the assistance of his friends. Early on in the investigation, Joe receives a great deal of assistance from his friend Cappy, and to a lesser degree, his friends Zack and Angus. In finding out that it was Linden Lark who committed the crime, Joe then resolves to kill Linden, however he is hampered by his apparent inability to aim a weapon. Cappy, being a rather good shot, offers to help Joe take down Linden, but Joe is initially hesitant to accept this help. Although Cappy eventually comes to fire the bullet that kills Linde, Joe goes to great lengths to prevent Cappy from helping him kill Linden, on the grounds that he does not want his friends to be implicated in the crime. This shows that Joe has the capacity to be a caring and morally “good” individual; but this alone does not make Joe a wholly good person. Indeed, a large part of the message of the story is that people are not wholly good or bad entirely, but rather, they have bits and pieces of good and bad inside of them that they must come to terms with in order to become better people, or as Father Travis describes, to “purify” one's self.

         While Joe's decision to help his mother and his reluctance to accept the assistance of his friends show that he has the capacity to do good, Joe's decision to drink the beer from the crime scene and to force Sonja to dance for him suggest that he is a flawed individual who is not entirely good and perfect. Early in the course of their investigation, Joe and his friends find themselves at a longhouse that comes to serve as a particularly important location within the confines of the story. There they find a number of potential clues to the crime including a pack of Hamm's beer; but rather than leaving the beer alone and resolving to keep it as evidence, Joe and his friends simply decide to get drunk off the beer. Now, this is not an “evil” thing to do perhaps, but it is certainly not good. Indeed, in deciding to drink the beer with his friends, readers come to find that the character of Joe is a flawed individual, and one who is not always capable of making the right decision even when he knows what the right decision might be. With that being said, one potentially “evil” act that Joe does can be found in the form of an interaction he has with Sonja, his Uncle Whitey's partner. In searching for clues, Joe finds a doll that he realized is filled with thousands of dollars, where he then gives the money to Sonja, who he admires. Later, while staying with his grandfather Mooshum, Joe comes to find that Sonja plans on giving a lap dance to his grandfather, which Sonja does not want Joe to be a part of. Stemming from his secret admiration towards Sonja, Joe blackmails Sonja, telling her that he will tell Uncle Whitey about the money unless she relents and lets Joe watch. While she does in fact let Joe stay and watch, she is quite upset at Joe afterwards, accusing him of being not unlike the other men who have taken advantage of her during her life. Together, these events show that, despite Joe's capacity for good, he is not a perfect individual. Like many other people, Joe falls victim to temptation and ends up making the wrong decisions, showing an important moral of the story. Within every supposedly “good” person there exists at the very least a capacity for one to do bad things, where the same is also true of supposedly “bad” people who are capable of doing good things. No person is wholly good or bad, but rather, as the story shows, humans must come to understand and control these capacities for both good and evil if they are to move on with living a better life.

         In closing, in sharing his wisdom regarding the “good, bad, evil, perfection, death” in every person, Father Travis comes to define not only Joe as a character, but indeed, the overall moral of the story as a whole, which suggests that every person has a capacity for good and evil that they must come to master in order to grow as a person. This is an important truth in life that one must come to understand. Humans are complex creatures that might not reflect preconceived nations about being wholly “good” or “bad”, and so in showing the capacities to do good and bad through the character of Joe, the author here reveals an important truth about life as a human being.

 

Works Cited

Erdrich, Louise. “The Round House”. Harper Publishing; New York, New York. October 2nd, 2012. Print.