I actually read this over the Christmas holiday, which I admit is not the best time to read a novel about a man turned insect ruining his family’s life, but I managed to enjoyed this despite the incompatible festivities.
This was my first time reading Kafka, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I was mainly excited about now being able to use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ with some legitimacy, but I was happy to find I enjoyed his writing as well. As with any translation, it’s hard to know how much of that is Kafka and how much is due to the translation, in this case by Susan Bernofsky, but whatever the formula, the final product was a pleasure to read.
When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.
Gregor Samsa is a travelling salesman, working to provide for his sister and parents, when he awakes one morning to find he’s transformed into a giant insect. The beginning of this novella is actually quite funny in how absurd it all is. Finding himself suddenly an insect is the very first sentence, and an explanation of how this came to happen is never hinted at or even speculated upon. Once he realizes the state he’s in, he acts as if he’s woken up with a common cold. It’s more of an inconvenience than a horrific curse. He even still wants to go to work, if only he could manage to flip over after waking up on his carapace and get these many legs to work in unison. It’s not until he sees the fear and disgust in others that he begins to understand that his life is forever changed. Whether it’s delusion or just the clinging habit of day-to-day life, it’s hard to say.
His family is disgusted by him, although they still accept what’s happened with surprising ease, and he is confined to his room to live as a shameful family secret. They open the door only to feed him, never to interact with him in any meaningful way, and always regard him with contempt. His mother is the only one who still wants to treat him well, but she faints when she finally manages to see him. His sister and father both have to take up jobs in order to support the family now that Gregor can no longer work, his sister also acts as his caretaker, and they both resent him for this.
The story gets quite dark and heartbreaking by the end, as he is more and more alienated and discouraged. I don’t know Kafka’s intentions, whether there was a particular analogy in all of this or if the lack of one was actually the point, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons between what Gregor is experiencing and what someone with a debilitating illness, and their family, may have to go through. The alienation he feels, as well as the inability to come to terms at the beginning. The way it changes the lives of everyone in the family, and how they grow to resent that. Gregor’s family was almost comically awful, but there’s no denying that such an event will change everyone’s lives, and over a long period of time it may begin to wear.
I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.
Even the beginning of the story mimics how cruel the universe can be. How someone can be healthy one day and then suddenly not, and search as you might for an answer or explanation, there may never be one. This is unfortunately an unfair world, and no matter how you live your life, you may one day wake up in a body that feels alien to you. One that you can’t control, and that others may look upon with unease.
Gregor may have transformed, but his family also went through their own transformation. This struggle brought them together as never before, and while it was something they would never wish to endure again, they were left stronger, both as a family and as individuals. Tragedy has a way of bringing people together.
Much like Christmas!
(Okay, trying to tie that in was not as successful as I would have liked.)