What is the effect of Kafka's matter-of-fact assertion of the bizarre incidents with which The Metamorphosis begins? How does Kafka keep the way it came to pass from becoming a major issue in the story?
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The question – how does Kafka keep the way the transformation or metamorphosis of Gregor from human to insect from becoming a major issue in The Metamorphosis – is a little unclear, insofar as the entire story involves this unusual event and its effects not just on Gregor but on those around him as well. To address the question of the effect of Kafka’s ‘matter-of-fact’ assertion of the bizarre incident, however, is more fundamental. Kafka was clinically depressed, suffered from social anxiety and a variety of conditions associated with that, including boils, insomnia, and migraines. Perhaps worst of all, he was employed in the insurance industry. All of these facts influenced his writing, especially The Metamorphosis, published in 1915. That he contracted tuberculosis two years after his story was published was probably viewed with some irony by Kafka, as he would live out his years being cared for by his family, especially by his sister Ottla – a situation eerily close to the plot of The Metamorphosis. In any event, the ‘matter-of-fact’ tone employed in his writing was almost certainly a product of his own personal history.
The tone of The Metamorphosis was probably also a product of the subject matter itself: a young professional awakens after a night of “troubled dreams” to discover he has changed into an insect. As Kafka’s story describes it, the story’s protagonist, Gregor, before reconciling himself to the fact of his transformation, first reflects on the travails of his existence:
“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” . . .
"’Oh, God’, he thought, what a strenuous career it is that I've chosen! Travelling day in and day out. Doing business like this takes much more effort than doing your own business at home, and on top of that there's the curse of travelling, worries about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become friendly with them. It can all go to Hell!’”
Parallels between Kafka’s life and that of his protagonist are undeniable. The matter-of-fact tone is a reflection of that parallel. His work with insurance companies, especially with the Italian company with which he got his start in the business, was stressful and unsatisfying, and escape from that existence, as well as with the financial burdens associated with having to take care of a family (in the case of Gregor, not Kafka himself) probably influenced the transformation of Gregor from human working a stressful job to insect incapable of gainful employment or, because of its horrific appearance, of even leaving its bedroom. The tone of the story allows for the fact of the metamorphosis to warrant barely a mention. The story is not about the physical act of transformation; it is about what occurs following that transformation, in effect, the deterioration of Gregor’s physical state and, more importantly, of his relationship with his family. His mother can no longer stand to look at him and his sister, Grete, undertakes a metamorphosis herself from doting sister to bitter critic. Physically and emotionally exhausted from the burden of caring for her brother while working at her job – Gregor’s inability to continue to support the family financially due to his condition has compelled the rest of the family to step up their responsibilities for providing for each other – Grete reaches her breaking point after Gregor inadvertently scares away the boarders the family had brought in to ease the financial pressure:
"Father, Mother", said his sister, hitting the table with her hand as introduction, "we can't carry on like this. Maybe you can't see it, but I can. I don't want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it. We've done all that's humanly possible to look after it and be patient, I don't think anyone could accuse us of doing anything wrong."
Kafka succeeds in not letting the fact of the transformation of Gregor into an insect become a “major issue” because the act of undergoing that transformation is not the point of the story. The metamorphosis of the family as a result of this change in family structure, with the main bread-winner no longer providing financial support, is what The Metamorphosis is all about.
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