What is the difference between surrealism and expressionism? I am trying to interpret the novel The Metamorphosis and I am not sure if I would identify it as surrealism or expressionism. From what...

What is the difference between surrealism and expressionism? I am trying to interpret the novel The Metamorphosis and I am not sure if I would identify it as surrealism or expressionism. From what I understood, Kafka uses Gregor Samsa to develop and show the inner anguish that Kafka personally feels. I feel as if Kafka is using the idea of Gregor turning into vermin and being rejected from society as a form or expression of Kafka's personal feelings of rejection and depression. However, I am not sure if this interpretation would be considered as surrealism or expressionism. 

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caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The difference between expressionism and surrealism isn't something, to my knowledge, that has been precisely quantified; a skilled argument could interpret a work generally considered expressionist as surrealist if it focused on the right criteria.

Some of the quantifiable differences listed in my sources above are the themes; surrealism is focused on love vs reason and rationality, and the nature of the human body and experience and the ways it interacts with the natural world. Expressionism is more concerned with the struggles of existence and the alienation/repression of the individual. You can see that there are some similarities; much of the difference lies in the literary manner in which the theme is explored.

Consider, for example, Gregor's transformation; there is a considerable amount of reflection by Gregor and the other characters as to what has happened, what it means, is this still Gregor or not? Compare it to this passage from The Magnetic Fields, a piece of surrealist literature:

It was the end of sorrow lies. The rail stations were dead, flowing like bees stung from honeysuckle. The people hung back and watched the ocean, animals flew in and out of focus. The time had come. Yet king dogs never grow old – they stay young and fit, and someday they might come to the beach and have a few drinks, a few laughs, and get on with it. But not now. The time had come; we all knew it. But who would go first?

My personal impression is that surrealist work is generally far more open to interpretation, and less negative in its tone, than expressionism, but also far less easy to "make sense" of, and with a less obvious correlation between its themes and its style.

caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Per my sources below, Surrealism didn't officially "begin" until the early 1920s; Kafka wrote Metamorphosis in 1915 and died in 1924, and is considered both an Expressionist and Existentialist novel (it is mentioned in the Expressionism source below).

The reasons that this is not likely to be a Surrealist piece are as follows;

  • Surrealism had a predominately French influence and following; Kafka was a German-speaking Czech
  • Surrealist writing is rarely structured or organized into linear thought; The Metamorphosis follows a fairly linear plot.
  • Surrealism is largely concerned with dreams and abstract thought; The Metamorphosis might be better considered a nightmare than a dream.
  • Surrealism made a strong distinction between "natural" thought, and thought that was affected by rationalism, social constraints and conditioning.

If you're seeking to make a connection to Surrealism, you might argue that Samsa represents the efforts of the rational mind and body to escape the dream, to establish reason and structure, when it fact it is the dream which is real. You might also argue that Gregor is a dreamer surrounded by the waking world, and it is the repression that the waking world instigates which causes his unhappiness.

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The Metamorphosis

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