Brotherly Love in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 5 Aug 2019
A Novel Reading of a Famous Tale
‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.’
— John. 8:7 (King James)
Any good work of art lends itself to multiple interpretations. A truly great one is infinitely suggestive and infinitely rich, capable of resonating in ways that its creator could never have foreseen. Kafka’s horrific, fascinating, gripping and terrible short story, The Metamorphosis is, I believe, one of these great works of fiction whose power has cast an enduring spell over readers ever since its publication over a hundred years ago. Its first sentence is one of the most famous in world literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.”[i] Thus begins this improbable nightmare fantasy which accentuates, by means of its remarkable absurdity, an exceptionally tragic and quintessentially human fate.
Vladimir Nabokov has provided a forceful reading of the tale centering upon the persecutory environment of the protagonist: family and society. De La Durantaye, responding to Nabokov’s tendency towards providing a “unique solution” or a “single correct response” cautions that Kafka’s symbols are “especially notable for their opacity, their indeterminacy, for never being subject to anything like a decisive interpretation.”
It is not my intent to review the voluminous critical material on Kafka’s story, nor to dispute the conclusions of the many authors who have grappled with its mysteries, nor, furthermore, to participate in a reduction of the complex beauty of the work to any particular thematic element. I would like, however, to suggest a means of understanding The Metamorphosis in a way that enhances its multiplicity of resonances by focusing on a profoundly significant and hitherto unseen aspect that renders Samsa’s plight even more complex and profound, namely, the centrality of Gregor Samsa’s relationship to his sister Grete – the centrality of unconscious sexual wishes and the immeasurable guilt they occasioned. It is not only the crushing weight of convention, mediocrity, social, familial and economic demands upon a human soul – the persecutory pressures from without – but also the deeply repressed ‘crimes’ from within the human psyche that are at play, without which the metamorphosis would never have occurred.
The Metamorphosis is, in short, amidst its many layers, the story of an older brother’s love for his younger sister, a love that is both punished and realised by the brother’s transformation into a dung beetle. The charged fulcrum of the tale occurs in its third part where Grete, the 17-year-old aspiring musician, is playing her violin for three boarders who have taken up residence in the family’s flat. It is worth quoting in full for its sheer poignancy, intensity and for its revelation:
“Gregor crawled a little farther forward and lowered his head to the ground so that it might be possible for his eyes to meet hers. Was he an animal that music had such an effect upon him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. He was determined to push forward until he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at least, not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become, for the first time, useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders; but his sister should need no constraint, she should stay with him of her own free will; she should sit beside him on the sofa, bend down her ear to him, and hear him confide that he had had the firm intention of sending her to the Conservatorium and that, but for his mishap last Christmas – surely Christmas was long past? – he would have announced it to everybody without allowing a single objection. After this confession his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar” (pp. 130-131, my emphases, op. cit., Muir translation).
This is a most extraordinary passage revealing the core of Gregor’s conflict, a basis into which the many other facets of the story may be said to converge so that instead of seeing Gregor as a hapless victim, we also see him as a potential victimiser. It is noteworthy that Grete offers her newly transformed brother kindnesses that her parents were not capable of. She cried for him at first, she cleverly divined the kinds of food he would like in his insect state, fed him while the others were asleep or away, arranged the furniture in his room to give him space and afford him a glimpse of the window, and who gave him so much pleasure with her music. Yet it was also she who, after he had crawled out into the open to hear her play to the lodgers dismaying the entire household – it was she who declares that the creature was not her brother, that in fact it must be got rid of; it is a declaration that follows the explicit profession of Gregor’s secret love; it is a symbolic rejection of Gregor’s wish to imprison and possess her, his wish to kiss her on the neck. It is as if she were saying, “No, my brother could never behave like this!”
“The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister,” and shortly after he has been sequestered out of public sight and into his room, the dung-beetle expires.
The Samsa family, sans Gregor, leaves the apartment and head for the country. Grete has “bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure” and at the end of their journey (and with the very last words of the tale) Grete “sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.”
The Metamorphosis begins with the transformation of an elder brother into an insect, and it ends with the transformation of a younger sister into a blossoming sensual young woman who would soon be ready to be wed. One may say that Gregor has sacrificed himself to protect his sister from impulses that might very well have overcome him and driven him to commit the iniquity of incest and that, in so doing, in his insect transformation and death, he has given scope to those love-wishes nonetheless.
Complex perhaps, and perhaps not at all what Kafka may have had uppermost in mind when writing – but who said great works of art could be limited by the conscious desires of their authors?
 “The Metamorphosis” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories, ed. N. N. Glatzer, Schocken Books, New York, 1972, pp. 89-139, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.
Dr. Emanuel E. Garcia is a Philadelphia-born writer, theatrical director, physician, and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He resides in New Zealand since 2006 and his political essays and poetry have appeared widely on various websites and publications including TMS. His most recent novel is the comic tale of accountants, artists and astrophysicists in New York entitled Manhattan Stardust. Website: www.emanuelegarcia.com. Email: email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Aug 2019.
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