Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life
Many of you have commented that I must be a great English teacher. To keep from lapsing too far behind in my lectures, I typed out my lecture notes on Kafka specifically in reference to the Metamophosis. I thought I would reprint them here for your entertainment. Remember these are lecture notes, not a well developed treatise on the novella.

In 1918, Franz Kafka published the Metamorphosis. Of this work, as well as few other stories published during his life he once wrote, "...should they disappear altogether that would please me best. Only since they do exist, I do not wish to hinder anyone who may want to from keeping them." His attitude towards his unpublished work was that it should be destroyed upon his death. While Dora Dymant obediently destroyed what Kafka entrusted to her, another friend Max Brod did not.It is because of Brod that most of what we know of Kafka's work survived. Thus Kafka became a literary icon through the publication of works he neither approved of nor wished to be published. Kafka's decision to destroy his work is best characterized by this comment, "One must be silent, if one can't give help...For that reason, all of my scribbling is to be destroyed."

The year before he wrote Metamorphosis, Kafka began to suffer from tuberculosis, which he referred to as "the beast." The dehumanizing effects of disease had a direct impact on how Kafka often played with narrative. In the story "Investigations of a Dog" the narrator recalls the days when he was "still a member of the canine community." The relationship between less than human narrators and the impact of disease is the most clear in the Metamorphosis. Kafka's TB often forced him to become a convalescent during which he was supported by his family, most notably his sister Ottilie (which corresponds to Gregor's relationship with his sister Grete). He often feared his disease would make him repulsive both physically and mentally and reduced him to being "less than a man" a perception reinforced by his robust, dominating father. The anxiety about his TB (his guilt about failing the family, his fear of being the cause of the family's shame, his anxiety about how such a disease would change how others related to him) manifests itself in Gregor Samsa's hideous transformation and the transformation of those around him.

The portrayal of Grete and the rest of the family is multifaceted and shows great admiration for them while demonstrating a huge amount of self-loathing. Gregor finds himself increasing the target of his family's rage. His father throws an apple at him, and his scurrying is often intepreted as malevolent "attack" behavior by his family; His sister loses interest her job as caretaker and eventually suggests what amounts to a murder plot. This plot is only averted by Gregor's death by starvation. Yet Gregor never blames his family for their behavior towards him, and his final act, death by starvation, demonstrations that his empathy for them is so complete that he will even die for them. ( just as he was "dying for them" emotionally at the beginning of the story by working as a traveling salesman in order to support the family and pay off his father's debts.) His startling lack of self interest (he never ponders the cause of his transformation or how it might be reversed) contributes to his insight into the family (his attention to the ministrations of Grete and his analysis of her behavior) and lends to the psychological reality of the piece.

Starvation is particularly important in Kafka's work. In 1924, Kafka died of starvation as a complication of his TB. His TB made eating very painful and with no other options for getting sustenance, Kafka simply stopped eating. The most graphic description of starvation comes from his story The Hunger Artist penned when Kafka was already beginning to die. The story focuses on a performance artist whose "art" consists of 40 day fasts. With public interest in this art on the wane, the artist decides to violate the 40 day rule. Despite his dedication, the artist is forgotten about and only discovered shortly before his death. He reveals that fasting was not difficult for him, but that rather he couldn't find anything he liked to eat. Gregor seems afflicted with this same disorder-starving but unable to find food palatable as time moves on. Psychologically this matches Kafka's attitude. Milena Jesenka (a journalist to whom Kafka was engaged) wrote of him in 1920, "Frank cannot live. Frank does not have the capacity for living...He is absolutely incapable of living...He possesses not the slightest refuge. For that reason he is exposed to all those things against which we are protected. He is like a naked man among a multitude of those who are dressed." In the Metamorphosis, Gregor never even contemplates escaping to the outside world where he might find a more comfortable environment as well as food he likes although his sister often rushes to open the window (perhaps trying to quietly urge Gregor to flee in the same way one opens windows to aide the escape of a wasp trapped inside). The Hunger Artist similarly complains of not finding palatable food, but how could one do so while spending so much time starving? This is part of the existential nature of Kafka's work. We are imprisioned by our own inability to even conceive of possible escape not by any actual physical limitation. In the words of Trainspotting, Kafka and his main characters seem impossible of choosing life, they instead respond, "Now why would you want to do something like that?"

The cause of Gregor's transformation is never revealed and even Gregor, like his family, doesn't seem particularly interested in the question.How does he regard his own transformation? Why isn't he interested in the cause? Why do you think Kafka would omit the exploration of the cause of Gregor's difficulty?

Be sure to keep in mind that the title doesn't necessarily refer ONLY to Gregor Samsa. What other types of transformations occur? How do different members of the family re-act to Gregor? How do these re-actions change over time? How else does Gregor transform? What kind of insect is Gregor Samsa? Note that while many feel he is a cockroach, the charwoman refers to him as a dung beetle. The description itself is unclear. Pay attention to how Gregor is described physically. How complete is his transformation? Does he keep some human aspects? Say like eyelids? It's also clear that Gregor's consciousness remains intact. How are we interpret this?

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