They always seemed to be in a group, frantic, following each other in a line, moving urgently. The mere thought of them made my skin crawl. Cockroaches were the bugs I feared most as a child. I grew up in NYC, and if I spotted any roaches in the apartment, I was thrown into a panic. Although my sister, Sharon, drew clever cartoons about a cute, friendly roach, I grew up with a strong fear and loathing of these insects.
As a teenager I read The Metamorphosisby Franz Kafka, probably because of my father's recommendation. Published in 1915, this short story or novella appeals to young imaginations, as the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning and slowly realizes that he's inexplicably metamorphosed into a giant beetle--a "monstrous verminous bug". He's not a roach, but an insect similar in appearance and status. I decided to reread The Metamorphosis online after reading a recent post about it on Mel's blog, The Reading Life.
The story is sad, because Gregor, a young man, has been working very hard as a traveling salesman to support himself, his parents, and his sister, Grete, and receives little if any gratitude in return. One of the themes of the book is alienation--from family, co-workers, and the world at large; Gregor does not receive affection or support from anyone. After awakening one dreary morning in his locked room, and discovering that he has been transformed into some kind of a large, hideous beetle, all he wants to do is to act responsibly, get out of bed, and go to work, which is now impossible. Transformed into an insect, he can hardly get out of bed, much less get ready for work, and he has no choice but to get used to his new state.
Is it all a dream?
It's not supposed to be a dream, although it could be. Gregor has just woken up after having had some "anxious dreams". (The story makes you think about your own dreams, and how reality can slip into them. For example, if I have to wake up earlier than usual, the last dream before I wake up is often related to getting up; my mind creates dreams that "remind" me that I need to exit the bed early.) Kafka transforms the protagonist into a disgusting beetle, a despised, useless creature, a character who could symbolize the alienation and melancholy of modern man. Even though Gregor was solely supporting his family, he was not appreciated at all. His sister shows that she cares for him a wee bit, and brings him food, but even that wanes as time goes by. Although he was a conscientious worker, "Mr. Manager" stops by his house and lets him know that he was not productive enough, that he has little value as an employee. All too soon, Gregor-the-insect is neglected by his family and becomes weary, sickly, and dirty. He feels guilty about his state and hides himself from his family because he wants to spare them the sight of him, first hiding under the sofa, later covering himself with a sheet, and sinks further into isolation, despondency, and hopelessness.
Although the themes in the story are depressing, Kafka's writing brings this memorable story to life through finely-detailed and vivid descriptions of this insect with "numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference". The title refers not only to Gregor's changed state, but also to his family, who go through their own metamorphosis as a result of his condition. The Metamorphosis is highly imaginative and believable and beautiful in a strange way, and is quite a worthwhile reading experience.
For a review of Peter Kuper's graphic novel version of The Metamorphosis, please visit Amanda's blog, The Zen Leaf.
This review counts toward LuAnn's Spring into Short Stories reading challenge.