Franz Kafka’s tales are a strange assortment of bizarre fantasies full of psychological explorations of obsessions and invisible power struggles. Stories such as “A Report to an Academy,” “Investigations of A Dog,” “The Burrow,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” and even “The Metamorphosis” feature animals as the main characters, often imbued with a sense of human rationality, as a way of critiquing various aspects of the human experience. For example, in “The Burrow” we read about a mole-like animal who obsesses over ways he can improve the defense of his burrow, all while fearing an imminent attack by a rival or a predator. His obsession over this potential problem prevents him from actually enjoying his time in the burrow, but Kafka implies it is the creature’s love of the burrow that causes him to obsess so much over its defenses. In other words, we want to protect and keep the things we love most, but our obsession over protecting that which we care about often prevents us from truly enjoying it completely. Yet, by the end of the story, a possible intruder is slowly moving towards the burrow; although perhaps this is all in the creature’s mind, his obsession transformed into an auditory illusion.
Characters succumbing to their obsessions might be described as a key idea that Kafka explores in much of his fiction. In what I would rank as Kafka’s second best short story, “In the Penal Colony,” we find an officer justifying the use of an elaborate torture machine to a famed explorer visiting a foreign penal colony. The officer believes that if he can convince the explorer of the efficacy and sacredness of this machine and its form of punishment, then he can defend the practice to the new commandant of the penal colony who has shown a dislike for the practice and is slowly dismantling it. The officer struggles to accept change and longs for the old commandant and the penal colony who occupied a kind of cultish religious position. As we learn at the end of the tale, there are stories that the old commandant would arise from the dead at some future date. Similarly, in “A Hunger Artist” which features a character who starves himself as a type of performance art, the reader encounters another character who struggles to adopt when society’s tastes change and they no longer care about his artistic efforts to starve himself. In both of these stories each character’s obsession, one with the torture machine and the other with the art of starving himself, serve almost as a kind of religious ecstasy they desire to achieve. The officer sees the torture machine as offering a sacred epiphany, while the hunger artist thinks that by starving himself beyond the permissible days of a performance, he will achieve a euphoric level of artistry. However, only they can see the secret glory in these activities, the outside world naturally views this as strange, cruel, and bizarre, suggesting our own petty obsessions that seem important to us might be at minimum meaningless to another and downright bizarre and dangerous at its most extreme. This focus on obsession and petty arguments continue in “The Village Schoolmaster” in which a schoolmaster and another younger researcher become intellectual rivals over their research and pamphlets about a local village mole. Nobody in the outside world, of course, cares about their frivolous debate, but to them it seems like one of the most important scientific questions in the world.
The most famous story of his shorter works is The Metamorphosis. One morning Gregor Samsa, the primary breadwinner for his family, awakens to find himself transformed into a gigantic bug. He is late for work and his family knock on his locked door anxious over his tardiness. His manager arrives to check on the reason for his delay. This draws the transformed Gregor out of his room to plead with his boss. When the manager sees him in this transformed state he tries his best to escape as quickly as possible, his family freaks out, and his father forces him back into his room by smacking him with a newspaper. The family shifts between anxiety and terror over their son’s new transformation, while Gregor starts adjusting to his new state, changing his dietary habits and beginning to crawl upon the walls. The family talk in private about how to deal with the situation, mentally, emotionally, and monetarily. To make up for Gregor’s lost revenue they all have to get jobs. Gregor continues failed attempts to communicate with his family members. For a short period they seem to grudgingly come to terms with his new existence, opening the door of his room in the evenings so he can listen in on the family during social hours after work. Then they invite some boarders to come live with them in hopes of earning a little extra cash and cheapen their living expenses. One night when Gregor’s sister plays the violin for the new boarders, the music attracts Gregor the vermin into the living room, which scares off the boarders. The family grows frustrated. His sister claims the monster isn’t really Gregor because if it was, then he would’ve left a long time ago for the sake of his family, and not hung around to be a burden upon them. Gregor in his despair over his family’s rejection crawls back into his room, weak from not having eaten much, and dies overnight. The family finds him dead the next morning. All of them call out of work because they desperately need a vacation from the stress they have experienced over the past few months and spend the day together.
Kafka’s work is more about symbols and textures than about plot. In his novel, The Trial, much of the novel is spent on Josef K.’s psychological reactions to an ongoing investigation for an unknown crime. Josef K struggles to make sense of the court system, and by extension the society that fosters such a system, while accepting and rejecting the help of others who might help him navigate such a convoluted and frustrating system, even as they themselves are a intricate part of the court’s labyrinthine nature. Josef K. fights to maintain a semblance of his normal life, while the investigation intrudes into that life, and his psychological reaction to his upcoming trial intensifies.
Likewise, Gregor Samsa tries to negotiate his everyday reality with this sudden transformation in his life. Instead of a trial changing his everyday life and demonstrating the precariousness of his relationships like in the aforementioned novel, the normal everyday course of Gregor Samsa’s life is interrupted by a transformation into a giant insect. So at heart of Kafka’s two stories are protagonists trying to make sense of their everyday lives and deal with the psychological repercussions of major devastating changes in those lives. More importantly, both novels share protagonists that discover that their seemingly high status in their jobs and families mean nothing once these tragedies; they have their realities turned upside down and in doing so learn that they never understood the nature of the lives and social existence to begin with. The two protagonists of Kafka’s stories soon learn how small and unimportant they truly are, how fortune and status can disappear in a blink of an eye. Even how our relationships with other people, even our relationships with our family, depend on the status quo. People are willing to extend their friendship and love when times are good, but willing to jump ship so to speak when time grow rocky and tragedy inconveniences them.
Kafka opens his narrative with Gregor awaking transformed after having some “unsettling dreams.” Many critics have tried to find Freudian connotations in the “unsettling dreams,” but the “unsettling dreams” seem to be more of an image there for contrast. The real world and the family’s reaction to his transformation is far more unsettling than anything that happens in a dreamscape. There is nothing so unsettling as the real world. Kafka’s story reveals how life itself seems like one long unsettling dream in which Gregory finds not a supportive loving family, but one that is terrified and antagonistic towards him. After being transformed Gregor Samsa loses his ability to communicate with his family. Kafka reminds us how much we take it for granted in everyday lives our ability to communicate with other people. Gregor Samsa doesn’t only lose the ability to communicate with other human beings, but he also loses control of his own body. He struggles to adapt to his new body. His insect body continually exudes strange fluids when he scrapes against furniture and Gregor struggles to negotiate his physical surroundings without arms or legs.
The books never offers a reason for his transformation. The transformation itself functions as a symbol for the alienating nature of modern social existence, an existence that even manages to alienate us from our own bodies. Without the ability to communicate to directly link him to other human beings socially, Gregor starts to adopt the habits of an insect, crawling across walls and eating rotten food. Kafka understands that it is only through social relations that we act the way we do, through the process of enculturation. Without language and the ability to communicate Gregor is cutoff from his family and culture, and by extension, his humanity. But is Gregor’s humanity lost forever? The ending denouement, if such a story has one, suggests otherwise in which he leaves his bedroom, unable to resist the attraction of his sister’s musical performance on the violin. His reaction to the music is strikingly human.
“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”
It is not clear in the text why he stops eating physical food, but I believe he is trying to kill himself. He has no reason to live since his family has abandoned him and he has been cast out of all social relationships. From his observations earlier in the novel, which mostly focuses on his family’s reaction to his changed state, his desire to communicate with them, reminiscences about them and his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs, I think we can conclude that he loves his family very deeply. The music his sister is playing feeds his undernourished soul. The music reestablishes for a moment his connection with other human beings. Multiple times in the narrative Gregor Samsa tells us that he planned to send his sister to a music conservatory as a Christmas present. The music connects him to that memory and to his life as a human being, it reconnects him to the love he has for his sister–the most human emotion of all. Additionally, music itself, and by extension art and literature, has the ability to connect and reconnect us with people. One almost wonders if his family had treated him differently, had demonstrated the love and compassion a family should have during such a crisis, if those feelings of love and human connection would’ve eventually restored him into a human being. Unfortunately that isn’t what happens and the music leads him out into the open, which brings on the final rejection of Gregor the vermin, denounced by his own sister, the very person who almost restores his connection with humanity through her music.
“You just have to try to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. Believing it for so long, that is our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will. Then we wouldn’t have a brother, but we’d be able to go on living and honor his memory. But as things are, this animal persecutes us, drives the roomers away, obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter.”
Kafka continually shows how major events can not only completely transform our everyday lives, but also our social relationships. His stories are there to remind us of the precariousness of our relationships with other human beings, how modern society alienates us from each other, and prevents us from true communication. Before the transformation Gregor Samsa is the breadwinner of the family. No one else works. Gregor Samsa complains about his early morning commutes and doesn’t seem to like his job, but feels an obligation to continue at the job he dislikes because his father owes a debt. Meanwhile at the beginning his father wakes up late in the morning and lounges around reading the paper. But suddenly once Gregor is transformed and cannot work anymore, everyone is able to get a job to help make ends meet. This of course raises an interesting question: why didn’t the other family members do this prior to Gregory’s transformation and strengthen their economic stability?
Clearly the rest of the family are capable of working, but instead they preferred to sponge off their son and have him pay off their debts. The whole story is essentially a reversal of this situation. He can no longer work because of his condition and they must support him. Far from appreciating all the help they received from him before the transformation, they resent him for not being able to continue with these arrangements. They resent that he causes them to miss opportunities that would help them get ahead in life, meanwhile before the transformation he sacrifices for the family and keeps his resentments to himself despite his unsatisfying job preventing him from starting a relationship with any women or leaving his job and picking up a career he would find more satisfying. He gladly sacrifices for them, but when the time comes for them to sacrifice for him they ultimately fail and voice their resentments out loud. This is a very cynical portrayal of the family unit, far more unsettling than the conceit of a person turning into a giant vermin. Kafka’s point seems to be you can’t trust family; they’ll let you down when the time comes for them to step up to the plate, but they’ll gladly mooch off you and drain you like a bunch of parasites and extend you their love as long as it is beneficial to their needs.