Thinking and conversing about Die Verwandlung is more interesting than reading it. This may account for the enduring fascination the world has had for this mildly diverting science fiction short story since it was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, a little noticed literary magazine, in 1915. But “fascination” is too mild a word for the work of someone whose name has become part of the English language. Webster defines Kafkaesque as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” After reading it … a task that occupied about an hour since the story is only slightly more than thirty pages long … my first thought was, “Why? Why do people obsess over something that might have trouble even getting published in Amazing Stories today.
There are four reasons I can think of to read Die Verwandlung.
First, for historical perspective. The characters in Kafka’s story are a window into mittelständisch German culture before two devastating wars. The family relationships; the grip of employers on workers’ lives; the casual assumption that a respectable family will employ maids and housekeepers – all these things are a reminder that we live in very different times.
Second, for insight into human relationships. Kafka’s story is more about the family of the main character than anything else. The times are different today, but people are the same.
Third, as a quick SciFi read. It’s not bad. It’s not good either.
But the most compelling reason for me is to answer my question, “Why?”
To dig into this question, I looked into the life of Franz Kafka. For one so renowned, I was surprised to discover that very little of his work had been published in his own lifetime. (Die Verwandlung is a notable exception.) Like many other artists, he only achieved success after he was no longer around to confound critics and admirers alike by criticizing their criticism, or – Horrors! – demonstrating the inadequacy of the criticism with later work. Later writers (Nabokov, W. H. Auden) who achieved success in their own lifetime burnished their own image by agreeing with each other about the genius to be found in Kafka’s work and also grieving that lesser beings so consistently failed to see it.
Indeed, Kafka’s works surely would have been forgotten completely if a life-long and very close friend (Max Brod) had not taken the initiative to publish them after Kafka’s death. Kafka’s own estimate of his work might be inferred from his explicit instruction to Brod in his will to burn it all. (And his personal decision to burn his novels before his death.) The works of Kafka might be compared to a lottery. It starts with nothing and only gains value by accumulating what others contribute to it. You are 100 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating bacteria than you are to win your average lottery. Nevertheless, someone always wins it. Kafka appears to have won the lottery, although he did so posthumously.
Die Verwandlung is the story of a man who wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a monsterous bug of some sort. He eventually dies. (The story suggests that he simply experiences a normal bug life-time, shortened somewhat by a wound from his father.) After initially supporting the man, his family largely abandons him. When he dies, they are much better off and happier. The story suggests that when the main character turns into a bug, his family members are forced to live their own lives rather than depending on him and that this was the key to their success.
Kafka denied it throughout his life, but it seems fairly clear to me that the story is a classic example of an anguished autobiographical metaphor.Note Many critics have noted the alliterative similarity of the name of the main character, Samsa, and Kafka’s own name. (This was also something that Brod himself noticed in Kafka’s very first story!) Kafka’s own father bears a striking relationship to Samsa’s coldly impersonal father and was in the same business as Samsa for many years. Kafka felt trapped in his Brotberuf (his “day job”) and so does Samsa. And both Samsa and Kafka suffered from a singular lack of sexual success. Neither married and their lives were marred by failed relationships. The story notes two specific failures for Samsa. I can almost hear Kafka shouting to his family, “If I turned into a monsterous bug someday, then would you be happy?” Kafka answers his own question, “Yes. They would be.”
It’s also notable that the narrator of the story knows what Samsa the Bug is thinking in a near first person style throughout most of the story. (Until the Bug dies, actually.) Then the frame of reference shifts and the narrator only describes events and never what anyone is thinking. Could any clue be more clear that the narrator is Samsa the Bug?
Hemingway, who lived a more interesting life and wrote more interesting stories, took his own life when he was slightly younger than I am now. Perhaps he wanted to hasten the beatification that comes from being a dead artist.
Dan Mabbutt – April 2013
Note For a real anguished autobiographical metaphor, ask to read my own story, The Ant.