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The Metamorphosis; and other stories ()


New York Public Library's Books of the Century

    Genuine self-analysis is impossible; otherwise there would be no illness.
           -Sigmund Freud

Two things strike me about Franz Kafka.  First, the almost complete absence of ideas in his work.  Second, how obvious it is that his work is fundamentally about either repressed or closeted homosexuality.

First things first; reading these stories and comparing what's actually on the page to the central position that Kafka holds among critics in 20th Century literature, I couldn't help thinking of Chauncey Gardiner.  He, of course, is the simple minded hero of Jerzy Kozinski's great book Being There.  Having spent his whole life within the grounds of a mansion gardening and watching TV, he enters the world completely unprepared to interact with his fellow man.  But the people he meets inflate his non sequitirs into faux profundities and he is soon advising the President of the United States.  He is a blank slate upon which other people scribble and then interpret their own ideas as genius.  In much the same way, Kafka wrote a series of completely autobiographical tales, and an unpleasant autobiography it is: grown men living at home with their parents; working menial jobs in huge bureaucracies; terrified of marriage; bullied by overbearing fathers;  plagued by illness, nightmares and feelings of alienation from all around them except for one loving sister.  This was Kafka's own life and these are the common threads that run throughout his work.   But add them all together and what you get is a situation, not a set of ideas.  Kafka endlessly rewrites the situation that he found himself in; noticeably absent are any thoughts about the origin, meaning or alternatives to this situation, other than killing off the character who finds himself stuck therein.

Second, I guess the discussion of Kafka as a "gay" writer is fairly recent, but I'm not sure how else he can be read.  The very lack of socio-political meanings in his work, the degree to which it is situation based, rather than driven by ideas, leaves you with only the elements of the situation to interpret and the point inexorably towards a conclusion that his heroes are isolated by their homosexuality.    Just take Metamorphosis; here are the elements of the plot.  A grown single man who still lives with his family wakes up one morning to find that he has become a bug.  This leads to his being isolated from his shamefaced family.  His father drives him out of a room by throwing apples at him.  One lodges in his backside and rots there; the resulting infection kills him.  Well c'mon; this just isn't even subtle.  A family ashamed of their single son.  He's a dung beetle for cripes sakes.  The apple (sin) infects his posterior.  I mean surely we've all got the picture by now.  Why go on?

All of which leaves us with an interesting question, does the fact that his stories may not have meant to him what they have come to mean to different schools of critics in some way diminish his stature as a literary figure?  Or does the fact that his intensely personal story can be read in a universal manner to apply to (1) the Jewish experience, (2) the epoch of totalitarian regimes and (3) the dehumanizing age of bureaucracy in which we all live, actually demonstrate just how great a writer he was?

I'm inclined towards the first view.  I think that the situation that he reiterates in his work is so specific to him and has so little to say about the world most of us live in that it is hard to justify his lofty position in the literary pantheon.  As I read, I found myself thinking, "this author is a troubled boy" more often than "this is a troubling society he describes".  In a perverse way, it seems likely that the best thing that ever happened to Kafka was the rise of totalitarian regimes in general and, specifically, their banning of his works.  It is noteworthy that he died before the long dark night of Nazism and Communism descended on Europe.  It is only retrospectively that his work came to be read as a gloss on these regimes.  And had they simply ignored him, it's hard to believe that he would have come to be so closely associated with their machinations.  Return him to the time and place that he wrote and take his work at face value and I think you're left, not with a writer whose work defines and illuminates the 20th Century (a la Orwell, with whom he is often unjustly paired), but with merely the mildly intriguing tales of an unwell man.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "Franz Kafka"
    -Franz Kafka (1883-1924) (kirjasto)
    -THE KAFKA SOCIETY OF AMERICA
    -Franz Kafka (1883-1924) (bio, links, etc)
    -Franz Kafka
    -Joseph K's The Castle
    -The Kafka Project by Mauro Nervi
    -Franz Kafka Photo Album
    -Constructing Franz Kafka: project started by participants of the spring 1996 Franz-Kafka graduate seminar taught by Dr. Clark Muenzer at the German department of the University of Pittsburgh
    -existentialism and Franz Kafka (Katharena Eiermann, The Realm of Existentialism)
    -Existentialists: Franz Kafka (bio, commentary, etc.)
    -Franz Kafka and Jewish mysticism- Kabbalah
    -Franz Kafka: an Absurdist
    -Leni's Franz Kafka Page
    -my tribute to franz kafka
    -Franz Kafka and Prague
    -ARTICLE: KAFKA'S LIBRARY FOUND IN GERMANY  (JOHN TAGLIABUE, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Kafka's Homeland Lifts Its Ban  (JOHN TAGLIABUE, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: New Work In a Word: Kafkaesque  (CRAIG R. WHITNEY, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Prague Journal; Kafka and the Jews in a Web He Would Recognize (HENRY KAMM, NY Times)
    -ETEXTS: Franz Kafka's Texts on the Web
    -ETEXT: "the metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka
    -Kafka, Franz The Metamorphosis (Medical Humanities, NYU)
    -CHAT: Franz Kafka & The Metamorphosis Forum Frigate
    -Transformation Stories List (Mark Phaedrus)
    -REVIEW: J. M. Coetzee: Kafka: Translators on Trial, NY Review of Books
       The Castle by Franz Kafka and translated by Harman Mark
    -REVIEW: of THE CASTLE A New Translation, Based on the Restored Text. By Franz Kafka. Translated by Mark Harman (Jeremy Adler , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Matthew Hodgart: K., NY Review of Books
       The Trial by Franz Kafka
       The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature by Martin Greenberg
       There Goes Kafka by Johannes Urzidil
       Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Castle edited by Peter F. Neumeyer
    -REVIEW: of Letters to Felice By Franz Kafka (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE NIGHTMARE OF REASON A Life of Franz Kafka. By Ernst Pawel  (Leonard Michaels, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE NIGHTMARE OF REASON A Life of Franz Kafka. By Ernst Pawel  (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of KAFKA. A Biography. By Ronald Hayman (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of KAFKA A Biography. By Ronald Hayman (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: V. S. Pritchett: The Logic of Franz Kafka, NY Review of Books
       Kafka: A Biography by Ronald Hayman
       Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice by Elias Canetti and translated by Christopher
       Middleton
       Letters to Ottla and the Family by Franz Kafka, edited by N.N. Glatzer, translated by Richard
       Winston, and Clara Winston
    -REVIEW: of Franz Kafka Representative Man By Frederick R. Karl (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Franz Kafka Representative Man By Frederick R. Karl (Leigh Hafrey, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Kafka By Pietro Citati (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  KAFKA'S OTHER TRIAL. By Elias Canetti (ANATOLE BROYARD, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: FRANZ KAFKA: The Irony of Laughter, by Mark A. Seaver
    -ESSAY: Personal Best: The Castle by Franz Kafka (ANDREW ROSS, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Franz Kafka &  the trip to Spindemuhle (Eric Ormsby, The New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Holy Alienation and Anxiety, Kafka! (KEN KURSON, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Essence of 'Kafkaesque' (IVANA EDWARDS, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: THE VISION OF BOTH ORWELL AND KAFKA IS AS SHARP AS EVER, CONFEREES FIND (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK; WAITER'S JOB IN PALESTINE WAS 'DREAM' OF KAFKA'S (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Special K.  (Louis Kronenberger, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: THE CENTENARY OF A CONTEMPORARY  (ERNST PAWEL, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: LITERARY FOOTNOTE; KAFKA'S HEBREW TEACHER (ERNST PAWEL, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: A VOYAGE THROUGH KAFKA'S AMBIGUITIES (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Roaming the Greenwood (Colm Tóibín, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Dark matter  Adam Mars-Jones reviews A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition by Gregory Woods (Mail & Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The "Fecal Dialectic":  Homosexual Panic and the Origin of Writing in Borges ( Daniel Balderston, Borges Studies Online)
    -REVIEW : of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann Translated by John E. Woods and The Castle by Franz Kafka Translated with a preface by Mark Harman    (Steve Dowden, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Castle by Franz Kafka Translated by Mark Harman (Roz Spafford, SF Chronicle)

GENERAL:
    -REVIEW: of FRANZ WERFEL A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood. By Peter Stephan Jungk (John Leonard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PRAGUE IN BLACK AND GOLD Scenes From the Life of a European City. By Peter Demetz (Larry Wolff, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Self-Analysis Enhances Other-Analysis   (Daniel Rancour-Laferriere)

Comments:

O wait, i see his gayness, its represented by his huge, hard, black, shiny, throbbing, pulsating... shell.

- Odin lord of thunder

- Dec-12-2006, 08:31

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Get a life.

- the master

- Dec-12-2006, 08:28

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You are all ignorant, cant you see that Kafka just sucked as an author, thats not reason to call him a stupid gay, its hard enough just being jewish.

- the master

- Dec-12-2006, 08:26

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After reading "Description of a Struggle," a work unpublished until after Kafkaa's death, in which the first-person narrator, a self-loathing skinny tall man, struggles with the inner torment of falling for his outwardly straight "new acquaintance," I quickly came to realize that Kafka was gay. Upon making that realization, I reread Metamorphosis, and my favorite "Unhappiness" only to find that Kafka's writing is so obviously laced with his gayness conflict (whether self-realized or not, I dont know.) I mean look at the titles of his stories alone: the Stoker ? in the Penal Colony? Come on! Surely its a shock to those that first see it, but sorry to say it: Kafka was a gay dude and he used his writing to deal with the surrounding conflict.

- Butter

- Jun-10-2004, 09:58

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I was an English literature and political philosophy major at a large (American, Roger) state university. "The Metamorphosis" was required reading in no fewer than five of the courses I took. The only work that showed up as required reading more often was "Hamlet," which I was required to read in six different classes. I have to say that while some of my fellow students expressed a certain level of outrage whilst studying "The Metamorphosis," none reached the fevered pitch of some of the comments posted here. Most of the objections from my classmates seemed to concern the silliness of a stiflingly serious story in which a dude turns into a bug. None involved angry sympathy for a closeted homosexual or self-righteous indignation against the American hegemony.

Which is to say, Orrin, that your somewhat more succinctly-stated critique of the work is consistent with the response of most of my classmates: to borrow a phrase, "The Metamorphosis" is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Piss and wind. And so it is---even minimal awareness of Kafka's milieu and the narrow themes of his writing demonstrate that he wasa one-trick pony whose works did not in and of themselves aspire to communicate anything approaching universal truth. To read into Kafka any meaningful, true, final insight into the condition of the human soul or society is to impose upon the ramblings of a young, unhappy, unfulfilled, rather unthoughtful Czech rube a vastly unjustified potency.

On the other hand, you may be a little too quick to dismiss "The Metamorphosis" without recognizing its value as a literary tool. What I mean is that not every literary work need be a paradigm of invention to have a place of quasi-canonical significance. "The Metamorphosis," like the rest of Kafka's work, is no better than a snapshot of the life of one tortured, dim hack scribbler. But the snapshot captures a confluence of conditions, events and ideas which profoundly influenced Western cultural development (and which, based on the venom of some of your posters, continue to resonate). First and foremost is the dimmest, most negative sort of existentialism. S*!t just happens to poor Gregor. Second is the bureaucratism of city life and the persistent class system in post-feudal eastern Europe (that's probably really two separate items). Third is the presentation of what Kafka presents in his story. Remember that the novel itself as a literary form is today only a little older than our nation (that's the US of A, Roger). The concept of using an unexplained supernatural event to highlight and reify the unhappiness of a doomed protagonist---well, that's pretty high-concept for the novel of the late 19th century. Not necessarily subtle or ingenious, but high-concept and worth noting in the course of the development of the form. Then there's the family conflict related in terms that resonate in what we now perceive to be sexually symbolic, thanks to the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis.

As a prescriptive matter, we could have all probably done without "The Metamorphosis." As a descriptive matter---as a registration of significant and substantial shifts in the Western worldview and, part and parcel, Western literature, the story is an efficient and remarkable little tool.

If it is indeed a gay book, as current convention suggests, then it is fairly remarkable on that count as well. I tend to view that particular matter, however, as one of convergent evolution. Those (like you, apparently, Orrin) who view the work singularly as the expression of misery of the "closeted homosexual," have in my opinion bought into the myth of the universality of experience of said misery. Don't misunderstand; I'm not attempting to belittle the struggle related by countless self-described gays who perceive societal and family resistance to their efforts to define their lives exclusively according to their sexual attractions and behavior and then dare anyone to object. I'm just not convinced that such an infantile, unjust-victim-of-society self-image informed any cohesive body of persons who engaged in homosexual behavior in Kafka's time. If this is indeed what "The Metamorphosis" is all about---and it may well be---well, the story is prescient indeed, is it not?

I myself grew glad to see "The Metamorphosis" on syllabi, because I had grown intimately familiar with the work. I remain bemused by those who are so enthused with defending its literary value and/or using it as a springboard to emote on issues of the day (gayness, Americannness). But I view Kafka as, more or less, a Poe-like figure (though with less literate panache)---self-absorbed, miserable, and impotent. Sorta good readin', lotsa bad livin'.

- jrm

- Jun-04-2004, 12:49

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Hello...I shall openly admit that I am a 15 year old who happened to come across Kafka's books. I decided to search online for a non-biased analysis of his stories and stumbled upon this website... Really, your arguments are really entertaining...Personally, I think all you guys out there are not entirely wrong or right in your analysis of Kafka's fiction. I do agree to an extent, that Kafka is a troubled soul...But face the fact, in today's world, many people are plagued by this disease called depression, and if Kafka actually wrote his stories to give a description of his predicament rather than consolidate ideas, then what is wrong with that? I don't think that we should just label this man as someone who is wrapped all over in self-pity. How can we do so when we did not live in the country that he lived in and at also that particular time period? I think OJ is going a little bit far there, when you say that he is hinting at "repressed homosexuals". Maybe I'm young and naive, but just because Kafka often talks of being ostracised and shamed, doesn't mean that he hints at homosexuality or whatever. Also, although I would say that though Kafka's books do not exactly reflect the perfect vision of a melting-pot of ideas, it is not lacking thereof of ideas at all. No book can exist without ideas. Kafka's books do not have the shape or format of an average novel or work of literature has. But though you can say that Kafka's works do not have strong plots (or proper narratives maybe), you can't really say that they lack ideas. The strong themes that he wants to express are ideas in themselves.

- Jacintha G

- May-24-2004, 01:15

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Mr. Diaz-Pino:

Yes, a gay author can write a universal story, but a gay story is generally not universal.

- oj

- Apr-23-2004, 11:12

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oj, you seem to really be uncomfortable with homosexuality, you do know that Shakespeare was gay, right?

you gave him a pretty good review

by the way, incredibly shallow reviews, i read 'em for entertainment purposes only, this website is literary bubblegum, its fun to chew on, but swallowing this stuff can't be to good for you

- Camilo Diaz-Pino

- Apr-23-2004, 10:38

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I have great sympathy for Kafka. Whether he is gay or straight is beyond the point of his writing. I read somewhere that Kafka was disgusted by the thought of sex, which would lead many to believe that Kafka, maybe infact was a homosexual. However, if you examine the relationship with he had with his father and mother, it may be that his repulsion from sex came not from homosexuality but from the fact that sex was a reminder of intimacy that was simply to painful and to meaningful for him to involve himself in after the damgae his family relationships had done to him. Where I see why you may become bored with Kafka's diversity of the themes in his works, and you mention that his works contained no universal theemes that people could relate to, therefore making him not inclusive with the greats of literature. However, isn't it entirely possible that maybe Kafka never intended to be a great? He was just writing to ease his inner pain and to connect to those who felt the same way in order toe arse some of his isolation. He just wanted to be heard and maybe not make philosophical statements. This may be why he order his friend Max to burn his works after his death. However, maybe that's truly the greatest part about Kafka, he started out with intent to free his soul, and on the way unintentionally connected with a greater audience.

Sincerely, Amy Trudell

P.S. Although Kafka did live and die long ebfore Nazism reached it's higher power, it isn't to say he didn't experience the hardships of the Jews. he was born in Prague and into an area highly ridden with anti-Semitism, to which he felt the burden of heavily.

- Amy

- Dec-18-2003, 23:53

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The "universal theme" in Kafka's work is human alienation because of negative family relationships, work, failure to make acquaintances into friendships ... whatever. This theme is important because everyone has dealt with this to one degree or another.

On the other hand, when reading some of his work, you can't help but pick up on some of autobiographical roots. Some are interesting; others have more of a "Get over it" reaction, at least from me. I'n not talking about Kafka's characters, rather Kafka himself. I think his biggest obstacle was himself: a lot of people have family relationships that are a lot worse than Kafka's, but they find ways to overcome them.

- Mr. Pink

- Jul-20-2003, 17:19

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I thought the point of the story was that giant cockroaches will one day rule the Earth?

-

- Jul-08-2003, 12:06

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To explain my last comment to the unresponsive degenerate: your last statement proves your being American by highlighting your tendency to believe that you understand the minds of people from far off lands whom you have never dealt with in any meaningful way, and to assert that they would surely agree with you; You the righteous, superior, and future of the Earth. Land of the free and home of the brave. God bless you, Orrin. You and all your idiotic brethren.

- Roger Davidson

- Jul-08-2003, 10:30

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I find it hard to believe that you are attempting to suggest that Kafka's work did not touch upon universal themes. Do we all not struggle with difficult family relationship from time to time in our lives? To statae that his work contains no ideas is quite frankly proposterous. Do you not agree that mans alination from his own life and society is a huge idea that Kafka eagerly presented. I feel the autobiographical nature of his work serves only to heigten our response as a reader. I really dont see how you can feel that this narrows his literary scope at all.

- Lady Lazurus

- Jun-22-2003, 18:44

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Aha! That proves it: you ARE American.

- Roger Davidson

- Jun-22-2003, 11:38

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No need to be so upset just because Kafka agreed with me rather than you...

- oj

- Jun-21-2003, 10:33

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Further (because I am so annoyed by your stupidity and arrogance), it is well-known among intelligent readers that Kafka is renowned precisely BECAUSE he was able to incorporate some of the personal aspects of his life into universally meaningful tales. This was his speciality, if you like; therefore you have missed the point at the outset. There are millions of websites like this one, and they are bad for literature, and bad for intelligent discourse. I'm sorry I stepped upon it. Are you American by any chance? "...the mildly intriguing tales of an unwell man." I expect you will spend the rest of your life being only "mildly intrigued", as that is surely the utmost your level of intelligence will allow.

- Roger Davidson

- Jun-21-2003, 10:22

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"Move on." "Get over it." Why do you bother reading at all? You sound like you're suggesting Kafka shouldn't have written at all. You simplify and reduce. You obviously have no sensitivity to the nuances of writing like Kafka's. It is the ambiguity which is so important. "The lack of meanings..." - you are obviously blind to subtleties. You are boorish and idiotic. I know many people like you who read a book, then announce "It's about THIS!" and have done with it. Kafka professed to have written solely for himself, requesting that his works be burned. I don't entirely believe this, but I certainly believe he didn't write for people like you. You are just another arsehole with a website and an opinion.

- Roger Davidson

- Jun-21-2003, 09:49

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I don't see how you can group authors together on the grounds of their sexuality.

you really couldn't get a trio of more different writers than kafka, hemingway and forster - yet you seem to dismiss them all on the basis of homosexuality. if forster fits in with any 'category', it is surely with the bloomsbury set, and authors like mansfield, woolf etc, not these other 'gay' writers.

sexuality may well inform some aspects of their work - but they all write about many different aspects of humanity because they are human beings.

to say hemingway isn't 'universal' is odd - his novels are extremely popular around the world.

to point out areas where an author's sexuality influences his work is valid. to criticise an author or say he can't have 'universal' appeal BECAUSE he is gay is pure homophobia and is not valid.

some academics say Shakespeare may have had homosexual relationships. will you revise your rave reviews of Julius Caesar if this is one day proven?

-

- May-27-2003, 10:55

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Yes, the miserableness is the point, is it not? What can an author who is so profoundly self-loathing tell us about life in general? Because their stories proceed from their sexuality they're interesting case studies but not universal in the way great literatiure should be.

- oj

- May-27-2003, 09:19

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well a)what have they ever done to you?

and b) what has their (alleged, not proven, not even very obvious) homosexuality got to do the quality of the prose? was rock hudson a bad actor because he was gay? or elton john a bad songwriter, or alexander the great a poor military tactician?

i notice you've also bashed hemingway for being gay... well, you can't exactly accuse him of flaunting it...IF he did have gay tendencies, they made him miserable.

-

- May-27-2003, 05:35

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Sure. It seems pretty straightforward, but if you can tell me what's unclear about it, I'll be glad to elaborate.

- oj

- May-21-2003, 12:54

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having read some of your reviews, espeically forster, kafka and kerouac, it seems to me that you have a bit of a hang-up about homosexuality.

care to elaborate on why you dislike gays?

-

- May-21-2003, 12:03

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