Today I’ll change things up a bit and discuss a very famous work of German literature. I must admit that my first reaction upon reading it must have been something along the lines of ‘er- right..’. However, I have since discovered that this is the beauty of the book and that every feeling of alienation and confusion the reader experiences adds to the value of the book.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic vermin.
Die Verwandlung tells the story of a young man who, as a result of being transformed overnight into a giant beetle, is alienated from his family, becomes a stranger in his own household and slowly loses his own humanity. Written at the start of the 20th century, it is a reflection of contemporary feelings of replacability, guilt, and isolation.
Instead of going into the details of Gregor’s transformation, Kafka focuses on the implications his new form has for his family and their reactions to it. They easily accept that their son or brother is now a beetle and only worry about the effects it will have on their finances and reputation. This compliance leaves the reader to wonder whether Gregor hasn’t always been a beetle. The novel can be seen as a Marxist criticism of the beetle-like state of the working man, who does the same thing every day and is simply a gear in a larger machine.
Upon rereading the story I found it very interesting from a historical and sociological point of view, but it was still hard for me to empathize with Gregor and his family. Many of his reactions are so different from what my own would be – if I were to wake up as a beetle I would seriously freak out – and his actions are described as if from a distance. It has often been argued that Kafka’s extraordinary writing style (such as his use of free indirect discourse, a mix between first and third person narration) and use of surrealist ways of distortion serve to alienate the reader from the story in the same way that Gregor estranges from his previous life or society. So in a way, this could make you feel more connected to him. I, for one, found it very interesting to read a book that plays with your feelings in this way.