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The Potrait Of Kafka's Life
By Vishal S Shah -- 4/01
The Metamorphosis written by Franz Kafka is considered one of the few great, poetic works of the twentieth century. Addressing The Metamorphosis, Elias Canetti, a Nobel Prize-winning author, has commented, "In The Metamorphosis Kafka has reached the height of his mastery: he has written something which he could never surpass, because there is nothing which The Metamorphosis could be surpassed by - one of the few great, perfect poetic works of this century" (http://www.mala.bc.ca/~mcneil/m4lec5a.htm). There are many symbolisms and parallelisms used in the story. "[Kafka's] disturbing, symbolic fiction, especially The Metamorphosis, written in German, [not] only prefigures the oppression and despair of the late 20th century" but also is an account of the dramatic transformations that had occurred during his own life ("Kafka Franz", Funk…, 2000). This beautifully written masterpiece of Kafka's is clearly symbolic of his own life and nightmare-like life experiences he had with his father.
"Suppose all that you have always valued in your life was shown to be an illusion. What if your precious beliefs, maxims, platitudes, and traditions were inverted and distorted beyond recognition? You suddenly realize that what is good is bad; what is beauty is foul; what is virtue, vice. What if all your points of reference were to shift: North becomes South; black becomes white; deviant becomes saint; saint becomes deviant. Suppose that this transformation - a metamorphosis of perception - were to come to you and you alone. Suddenly you awake, and in utter solitude you discover that your values have reversed along with you: you are a roach!" (http://www.vr.net/~herzogbr/kafka/). Your world is abruptly and totally changed! This is Gregor portrayed in Kafka's The Metamorphosis.
With the opening of the story, Kafka right away jumps into the woken yet uneasy dreamy state of Gregor, a young commercial traveler. With the rise of Gregor, Kafka describes the dull, gloomy and humid environment that foreshadows the decay and deterioration of Gregor's life. As soon as Gregor opens his eyes, he finds himself positioned in an uncomfortable manner and transformed into a monstrous vermin or a gigantic insect, a worthless creature, with his hard armor-plated back lying on the bed: "He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like belly divided into stiff arched segments…" (Kafka 296). With this arresting opening, Kafka has set his mysterious psychological fantasy in motion. He plainly describes Gregor's uneasiness of keeping himself balanced in his bed. "His numerous pitifully thin legs waved helplessly in the air before his eyes" (296). Just so the readers are not left in confusion, Gregor asserts that "It was not a dream," and sees for himself, in disbelief, that he is still in his own regular human bedroom, with a collection of cloth samples widespread on the top of the table (296). Slowly and gradually, we notice Gregor's difficulty in getting up from his bed and his effort to get up safely without hurting hims5elf. This is clearly seen when the narrator says, "If he tried to bend a leg, it first straightened out; and if he finally succeeded in taking charge of it, the other legs meanwhile all kept carrying on, as if emancipated, in extreme and painful agitation" (297). Through this description of his difficulties one can clearly see his miserable suffering and his slowly deteriorating health.
The use of lengthy descriptions of the difficulties that Gregor faces probably signifies Kafka's actual feelings and pains that he suffered within his life, mainly during his childhood. Gregor's difficulties in getting up from his bed actually relate to the difficulties that Kafka faced the very morning of the initial composing of The Metamorphosis. In regard to this he wrote Felice Bauer, his German fiancée:
I was simply too miserable to get out of bed. It also seemed to me that last night my novel got much worse, and I lay in the lowest depths. I'll write you again today, even though I still have to run around a lot and shall write down a short story that occurred to me during my misery in bed and oppressed me with inmost intensity.His "short story," mentioned in his letter to Bauer, obviously refers to The Metamorphosis. The first few lines of the story clearly has an obvious connection to his difficulty in getting up from his bed. His mentioning of "running around a lot" can clearly be interpreted in The Metamorphosis as the innumerable thoughts that are zooming by Gregor's now inhuman brain. Kafka's character, Gregor, obviously has to do a lot of chores: he has to catch a train and report to work since he was a commercial traveler.
Kafka lived a miserable life. He was constantly haunted by the oppressive image of his father. This could be clearly seen in Gregor's grave attempts to get out of the bed. Becoming desperate, he thinks of getting help from his dad and the servant girl, so that they can put their strong arms under his covex back and lever him out of the bed. He could then turn himself right over onto the floor and from then onwards, he hoped his legs could find their proper function. But, since his door was locked, he would need to call for help, which he does not prefer. This definitely shows Kafka's fear of his father. He would rather lie on the bed for the rest of his life than to call his father to help him out of the bed. Kafka's fear, projected here as Gregor's fear of Mr.Samsa's help, is clearly, knowingly or unknowingly, projected in his many literary works. Gregor (Kafka in real life) is definitely seen to be afraid of Mr. Samsa (Kafka's father in real life). The fact that Kafka mentions "strong arms" also has hidden meanings behind it, which could mean nothing more than strong arms to the readers. But, these "strong arms" definitely suggest the stern and harsh personality of Kafka's real life father, Herrman Kafka.
"In his story, Kafka has undoubtedly exorcised some personal devils, notably his ambivalent feelings towards his father, Hermann, an overbearing, intemperate, and tyrannical man whose values repeatedly collided with his son's aesthetic interests" (Madden 212). Kafka's interest in writing is hampered by his parents, mainly his father. Kafka lived in the shadow of his dominating father under constant pressure to take over the family business. Herrman always viewed Franz as a failure and disapproved of his writing. Herrman's intentions for him running a business are clearly revealed in the story when Mr. Samsa mentions Gregor doing his fretwork. This obsession with wanting Franz to become a businessman often led Herrman to beat his son. Kafka's frustration could be felt in his letter to Brod Max:
…how my mother whimpers to me almost every evening, that I should after all take a look at the factory now and again just to keep my father's mind easy, and how father has said the same thing, in a far nastier way with looks…One can see, in the story, the father's loss of hope that Herrman had for his son, Kafka, when Mr. Samsa mentions the disorder of Gregor's room - "a disorder expected of someone whom one could call 'old dung-beetle.' Gregor's metamorphosis into a disgusting insect seems to confirm the father's opinion of his son" (Corngold 77). Also, before the metamorphosis of Gregor, he used to work and support the entire family. However, after the metamorphosis, he was totally disregarded and was never given any importance. He was left alone in a room to be dead. Mr. Samsa's family never recognized his efforts in supporting the family, and never considered what his wants and needs might be. This, of course, is a true account of the mishaps in Kafka's life. Through this one can clearly see that the relationship between Gregor and his father is in many ways similar to Franz and his father Herrman.
From the very moment we meet Mr. Samsa, we are shown how short tempered he is, just the way Mr. Herrman was. Kafka explains, like a displeasing, fearful and a wild natured man, "[Mr.Samsa] came out hissing like a wild man" when Gregor first exited his room. Of this attempt by Gregor to come out of his room, Mr. Samsa seizes the walking stick and a large newspaper and begins flourishing them to drive Gregor back into his room. Herman Kafka's overpowering and abusive nature over his son, Franz, seems to peep out of the story in the form of Mr. Samsa. "His father knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room…" (Kafka 303). Kafka was subjected to abuse and constant yelling from his father because he was a failure in his eyes. Gregor now feared, that "…at any moment the stick in his father's hand might hit him a fatal blow on the back or on the head" (306). Gregor's fears prove true when "…from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely"(306). This horrible climax of the ending of the first part of the story and it's suggesting such a despair in Gregor's life could be thought of as directly related to Kafka's mood at the time. His letter to Felice Bauer reads, "I am too depressed now…today the hero of my little story also had a very bad time…"(Corngold 65).
Kafka's writing does involve pain and suffering, mainly because of the behavior of his tyrannical father. Herrman's abuse left a long lasting impression on Kafka's psyche. Due to this, we see him using references to severe injuries in his stories. When Grete runs to the other room to get an aromatic essence for her mother, Gregor follows her and stands behind her. Startled at the sight of Gregor, Grete drops the bottle and the scattered pieces of glass cut Gregor's face. This might be an interpretation of Kafka's mind imagining horrifying images of his extinction. At another attempt to come out of his room, Gregor suffers beyond limit. He is chased by his father all around the house. Kafka's imaginative mind travels describes Mr. Samsa's behavior: "It was an apple; a second apple followed immediately…." (Franz 317). He was soon bombarded by the many apples thrown by Mr. Samsa. This relates to Mr. Herrman's continuation of resuming his authority over Kafka.
Relating this story with Kafka's life, William A. Madden has said, "…it is literally a true account of a man, life, and the cosmos" (Madden 211). Kafka never remained happy in his life. He always lived a guilt-ridden life, with fearful memories of his dad.
Resenting his father's overbearing nature and feeling deprived of maternal love, he nonetheless lived with his parents for most of his life and complained in long letters about his coldness and inability to love. In his letter to his father he clearly clarifies his conscience before his father:
Dearest Father, you once asked me why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I did not know how to answer you, partly because of this very fear I have of you…the explanation of this fear involves so much that I can't keep half of them together.Gregor is only one to known who supports not only himself but also his until before his metamorphosis. Kafka relates this to his actual father who he calls a vermin:
You have in fact gotten it into your head to live completely off me. And the fight of the vermin, which not only stings but also sucks blood for its self-preservation…and that's what you are. You are unfit for life.Imagining his father as a vermin and his duties that his father expected him to be obliged to, might have lead Kafka to the end of the story. We notice that Gregor is talked about with hatred in the family. At the end, even his sister insists her parents that "it" (Gregor as a bug) should be removed. Gregor finally stops his breath and ceases to live. Gregor's death might be related to Kafka's actual feelings about ending his life, the proof of which can be verified in his letter to Max Brod, "I stood at the window for a long time and pressed myself against the pane, and several times I felt like frightening the toll collector on the bridge with my fall" (67). This feelings about death is also seen projected in the beginning of the story when Gregor mentions "to hell with it!" Kafka meant more than just quitting his job. He obviously was referring to death and extinction. Thus we can clearly see that even the end of the story is not just the usual end as one may guess.
We have seen so far that in The Metamorphosis, Kafka directly reflects upon many of the negative aspects of his personal life, both mentally and physically. "Kafka's reaction to his father was both to turn inwards and nurture a basic kindness and decency in his dealings with others." When comparing Franz Kafka and his personal life to The Metamorphosis it is obvious in more than one ways that he was writing a twisted story of his life, which is ultimately reflected in his literature.
Kafka Franz. "The Metamorphosis." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed: X.J.Kennedy, and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1999. 296-329.
Kafka, Franz. "Letters and Diaries." The Metamorphosis. Trans. and Ed. Corngold, Stanley. New York: Norton, 1996. 61-74.
Corngold, Stanley. "Preface." The Metamorphosis. Trans. and Ed. Corngold, Stanley. Sydney: Bantan, 1972. xi
Kafka, Franz. "Explanatory Notes To The Text." The Metamorphosis. Trans. and Ed. Corngold, Stanley. Sydney: Bantan, 1972. 77.
Kafka, Franz. "Documents." The Metamorphosis. Trans. and Ed. Corngold, Stanley. Sydney: Bantan, 1972. 103-112.
Madden, William A. "A Myth of Mediation: Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'." THOUGHT XXVI.101 (Summer 1951): 246-66. Rpt. in "Kafka, Franz." Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas Votteler. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 1996. 210-213.
"Franz Kafka." Encyclopedia Of World Biogarphy. 2nd ed. 1998.
"KAFKA, Franz." Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. CD-ROM . World Almanac Education Group. 2000.
"Metamorphosis by Kafka." http://www.vr.net/~herzogbr/kafka/meta09.html
By Vishal S Shah -- 4/01
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