At one time or another in their life, nearly every single person must feel alienated. Perhaps they feel alienated from their family, or perhaps from the world, or perhaps even from God. At the point of alienation, it is only natural to seek some sort of transformation. As a psychiatrist heavily influenced by existential philosophy (f1), R. D. Laing suggests that it is primarily the psychological violence humans wreak on each other that causes this sense of alienation, and hence our need to transform ourselves into something or someone that might be more acceptable to the world around us. This fundamental human experience has been explored since the dawn of literature, and is exemplified in the cosmic story of alienation and the search for transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in the much more personal, microcosmic exploration of Franz Kafka in Die Verwandlung. In their works, both Ovid and Kafka give graphic examples of humans becoming alienated and then seeking transformation in order to restore “normalcy” into their world.
While the essential themes of the works are the same, the backgrounds of the authors could not be much different. Yet it is obviously the early years of any artist that influences what messages they will portray in their art, so it is important to understand the lives of Ovid and Kafka in order to better understand their works.
Publius Ovidius Naso was born in 43 BC in Sulmo, about 90 miles north of Rome, and died in AD 17. His family being fairly well-to-do and minor nobility, he was sent to Rome to be educated around the age of 12. To round out his classical education, Ovid was sent to Athens, and traveled extensively throughout Greece with a friend and fellow poet, where he learned much of the mythology that was to form the basis for Metamorphoses. Ovid was a master of formal poetic forms, and as perhaps appropriate to a young man, many of his early works were quite erotic in nature. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
The Metamorphoses consists of fifteen books written in dactylic hexameter, which do a remarkable job of following the progression of Greek and Roman mythology as if it were actual history. While creating this mythical timeline, Ovid also manages to group many of the myths into thematic sections, thus allowing the reader to see a pattern and perhaps a “moral purpose” as to why each myth was created, other than the obvious purpose of explaining causations that the science of the day could not explain. It is in this presumed “moral purpose” in his writings that Ovid is exploring how Man behaves toward men as well as animals, and establishes a cultural identity through his basic decency or indecency, his religion, and his place in the cosmos.
In this sense, it is important to explore the etymology of the word “metamorphosis”, which is the singular form. Although he was Roman, Ovid took the Greek word metamorphoun meaning “to transform,” which derives from meta (“after” or “in the midst of”) and morphe (from Morpheus, the god of dreams and the maker of form, shape, beauty, and outward appearance). (Harper) Therefore, Ovid’s use of the word in the plural indicated that he was writing about transformations of many types, although science had not yet come close to understanding the transformation of insects and applied the word in that sense. Ovid was writing about Man and his creation, mythology. This distinction may become even more significant in later discussions of Kafka’s work.
After the standard device of appealing to a Muse (in this case, the gods) for inspiration, Ovid states his theme of transformation, and proclaims that he will write a long, continuous poem-an epic in the style of Homer and other great Greek poets-that stretches from the origins of the world to his own time:
Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing: / Ye Gods, from whom these miracles did spring, / Inspire my numbers with coelestial heat; / ‘Till I my long laborious work compleat: (Garth, et al.)
The rest of this section, entitled “The Creation of the World”, describes exactly that. It is interesting to note that this transformation was a deliberate plan, rather than some random occurrence that arose from Chaos: “Thus when the God, whatever God was he, / Had form’d the whole, and made the parts agree” (ibid), whereas Kafka gives the reader no hint at any time of a cause for the metamorphosis that begins his work. That curious fact will be discussed in greater detail later in this paper.
From the early Asian cultures to Mesopotamia to Europe and to the Americas, every single culture has a mythology that begins with a creation story. This not only includes the creation of the heavens and the earth, but also of Mankind. Again, Ovid attributes the creation of Man to the gods: “The God of Nature did his soul inspire, / … And earth was metamorphos’d into Man.” (ibid)
Section two of Book One, “The Golden Age”, describes when the world was bright and fresh, and Man was a wonderful creature. Then, in “The Silver Age”, Saturn is banished by his son, Jove (i.e., the “old god” is replaced by the “new god”, and the father is replaced by the son), the world becomes a colder, bleaker place, and Man starts to suffer a bit. This is all very Oedipal, although Jove marries his sister, Juno, not his mother. Finally, in “The Iron Age”, Mankind succumbs to war, greed, immorality and injustice. At this point Man becomes alienated from the gods: “And justice, here opprest, to Heav’n returns.” (ibid)
However, it is not only Man who suffers alienation and transformation in Book One. In “The Giants’ War”, we discover that “Nor were the Gods themselves more safe above” (ibid) in that a terrible and violent war ensues in heaven itself. Disgusted with all of this, Jove calls a council of the gods and declares: “All are corrupt, and all must be destroy’d.” (ibid) Jove seems to forget that it was his usurpation of power from Saturn that caused all of this misery in the first place. Wanting to start again, Jove sends first fire and then water down to destroy Mankind, “And what he durst not burn, resolves to drown.” (ibid) Harkening back to the Mesopotamian myth of the ark, Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, escape in a boat because “The most upright of mortal men was he; / The most sincere, and holy woman, she.” (ibid) The alienation of Man from the gods (and the gods within themselves) has caused transformation, and now we await a new redemption.
The couple prays to the goddess Themis to be allowed to restore the race of Man, and she graciously accedes: “Throw each behind your backs, your mighty mother’s bones.” At first confused, Deucalion later translates the command to mean “This Earth our mighty mother is, the stones / In her capacious body, are her bones”, (ibid) which turns out to be correct. Thus, a new cycle is begun for the human race, and the rest of the animals are quickly regenerated once again from earth.
Ovid now switches from the creation story in Book One to the story of Phoebus (Apollo) and Daphne. After killing the mighty Python with an arrow, Phoebus sees Cupid and insults him for his puny little bow and its insignificant purpose (“With that the feeble souls of lovers fry”). (ibid) Incensed, Cupid vows revenge on the mighty god. Cupid shoots Phoebus with an arrow that makes him fall in love with the totally innocent nymph, Daphne, but shoots her with a bolt that makes her loathe Phoebus. In long, graphic detail, Ovid describes how the lovesick Phoebus pursues the innocent girl, who only wants to remain a maid, and chases her to the bank of a stream, where Phoebus is about to rape her. Daphne cries out for mercy. Taking pity on her, but unable to defy Phoebus, Peneus, her father, god of the streams, transforms her into a laurel tree. Still enraptured, Phoebus embraces the tree, and vows that from then on great champions would be crowned with a wreath from the limbs of his inamorata.
So, we have it all once again. Phoebus alienates Cupid, Cupid transforms both Phoebus and Daphne through another form of alienation, and Daphne undergoes another transformation that ultimately gives her a form of redemption. Although not in the way she thought, Daphne has attained her new identity, and will remain a chaste maid forever. Although these actions are attributed to the “gods” and “demi-gods” (wood nymphs, satyrs, etc.), these are obviously the types of actions, emotions and motivations of humans. This was not a pure love in the least, but a lust inspired by magic, and it ended tragically for the most innocent party due to the “outrageous violence” perpetrated upon Daphne by both Phoebus and Cupid.
Ovid immediately launches into another tale of lust and abuse of power. As the beautiful nymph Io also is returning from a stream, Jove spots her and decides to have her. He causes a mist over the bog, then rapes the innocent maiden. Juno, suspecting what is going on under the covers, dispels the darkness and fog that hides her husband’s activities. Knowing the game is up, Jove doesn’t want to get caught, so he transforms poor Io into a cow. Thinking this new breed of cow to be quite pretty, Juno demands that Jove give the “heyfer” to her as a present. It is only after Jove swears that he won’t bed the poor, suffering Io any longer that Juno relents and restores the nymph to her previous shape.
This trend continues through the second book, which opens with “The Story of Phaeton”, who wants to learn if he is actually the illegitimate son of Phoebus from the sun god’s dalliance with Clymene. Although his search was originally from a desire to be reunited with his father-not to mention his shame from others openly mocking Clymene’s story about his birth-Phaeton demands a gift from his father to prove the relationship. Very reluctantly, Phoebus allows his son to drive his chariot across the sky, which naturally ends in disaster. This story results in many causation explanations, including why the natives of Africa are black and Libya is a desert:
‘Twas then, they say, the swarthy Moor begun / To change his hue, and blacken in the sun. / Then Libya first, of all her moisture drain’d, / Became a barren waste, a wild of sand. (ibid)
The upshot was disaster for the entire “family”. Phaeton was burnt to a crisp by the chariot, Phoebus lamented that he had allowed such a thing to happen, Phaeton’s grieving sisters were turned into trees, and Clymene herself was left to mourn the loss of all of her children. Even Cycnus is transformed into a swan due to grief from the loss of his great friend, Phaeton, and the sisters.
In spite of all of this grief and sad repercussions that have occurred due to lustful deceptions, alienations and transformations, Jove still cannot keep his eye from wandering. Even when he is out doing good in the world, he spies the charming Calisto laying unguarded in the grass and thinks: “Here I am safe … from Juno’s eye”! (ibid) He even disguises himself as Diana, whom he knows the girl worships, in order to seduce her. Recognizing him, Calisto fights for her virginity, but is overwhelmed by the god. As her reward, poor Calisto becomes pregnant and is banished from Diana’s services. When she bears a son, Juno is enraged and transforms the innocent nymph into a bear. When he sees that Calisto’s son is about to kill her, Jove transforms them both into constellations. In the Greek tradition, this is really a high honor.
Even Jove comes to recognize that he is a lecherous old goat who, although he may do good works at times, just wants to avoid being caught by his wife when sneaking around in order to avoid her wrath. Although he is the king of the gods, he does not feel any need to be “perfect” in his behavior and set a positive example to other gods or to men, he just needs to become reconciled to who he is and his place in the cosmos. On the contrary, he often enlists the aid of lesser gods, such as Hermes, to help him in his pursuits. Due to his example, many of the other gods act in the same cavalier fashion.
This pattern continues in Book Two to finally end with the rape of Europa, where Jove disguises himself as a white bull. Although the intent of such myths was to explain causations (How did the laurel tree come into existence? Why is Africa so hot? Why are there constellations in the heavens?), the purported actions of the gods in treating Mankind so disdainfully-or even generously, in the case of Prometheus, for example-is really based on how men treat one another. For Ovid, this alienation and mistreatment, especially between the two sexes, was clearly the natural order of things.
For example, in Book Three, Actaeon accidentally views Diana and her nymphs naked. Although there was no evil intent on Actaeon’s part, Diana transforms him into a stag, which is hunted down by his own men and torn apart by his own dogs. This undue revenge of the goddess against an innocent man reinforces the actions of Juno, who cannot take revenge against her powerful husband, so takes out her anger on innocent humans.
According to Daniel Boorstin, “The popular Arts Amatoria of the Roman poet Ovid … told how to conquer women of easy virtue and also instructed women on seducing men. It was axiomatic for Ovid that love could not exist between husband and wife.” (Boorstin 256) Jove and Juno are the prime example of this failure.
The Third Book begins with the story of Cadmus, who courageously kills a fierce dragon. The lesser god Pallas comes down and tells Cadmus to sow the dragon’s teeth, which spring up to be an army of brothers. On the spot where they essentially kill each other off, Cadmus founds a great city. Although there is no explanation of why Pallas wanted such a strange thing to happen, the alienation and transformation theme still runs clearly through the story.
It may be that Ovid simply uses this story to set up what occurs in “The Birth of Bacchus”. Ovid actually gives a brief discussion on the justice (or injustice) of Diana’s actions, which leads to the following passage:
Juno alone, of all that heard the news, / Nor would condemn the Goddess, nor excuse: / She heeded not the justice of the deed, / But joy’d to see the race of Cadmus bleed; / For still she kept Europa in her mind, / And, for her sake, detested all her kind. / Besides, to aggravate her hate, she heard / How Semele, to Jove’s embrace preferr’d, / Was now grown big with an immortal load, / And carry’d in her womb a future God. / Thus terribly incens’d, the Goddess broke / To sudden fury…. (Garth, et al.)
In disguise, Juno persuades Semele, Jove’s new mistress, to convince Jove to demonstrate his power if he truly loves her. Similar to Phaeton’s fate, Semele is blasted by the power of the gods. Jove saves the unborn child, sending him to be nursed secretly by the Niseans. It is clear that Juno now “detests” all human females, and, since she can transform neither Jove’s behavior nor her marriage, she resorts to either turning his mistresses into animals or killing them, whether or not they played any part in betraying her. This relationship serves as a rather unfortunate model for most of the gods and goddesses, who have become totally alienated from their human creations.
In Book Four, Ovid finally gives us a story, that of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is totally human in its context. The families live in semi-detached houses: “A closer neighbourhood was never known, / Tho’ two the houses, yet the roof was one.” (ibid) This passage could be translated as: “Two households, both alike in dignity…”, which again puzzles the reader as to the cause of the enmity between the families, as Ovid does not explain their differences any more than Shakespeare does. Nevertheless, due to the respective parents forbidding this union, Pyramus and Thisbe seek to elope. Their timing is a little off and their luck is all bad, so they wind up committing suicide. In this case, their transformation is of their own making, as they decide they would rather die than not be together. Naturally, they are united in the end, but as ashes in an urn.
Ovid is exhaustive in his recounting of myths and semi-myths. As he promised, every story revolves around some sort of transformation, either caused by the gods or by the vagaries of human nature. Just as the world was formed from Chaos and given shape, so are the people who inhabit it gradually moving towards some form of “normalcy”, or a cultural norm.
Book Eleven begins to move from myth to history with the conception of Achilles, the great Greek hero of the Trojan War. Peleus, primarily a mortal (although descended from the gods), was able to win the sea-nymph Thetis to be his wife, although certainly with the aid of the god Proteus. Still, this is the first instance of a mortal actually being “victorious” over a god or goddess, and marks the beginning of the transformation of the balance of power in the universe. With the conquest of Peleus over Thetis and the siring of a child by her, a mortal begins to produce offspring that have god-like qualities by his own design, rather than being the plaything of the goddess.
In Book Twelve, Ovid begins describing the Trojan War and, in particular, the exploits of Achilles. In defeating Cycnus, Achilles’ great powers are revealed: “It seemed wondrous to all of them that a warrior should have a body no spear could penetrate, impervious to wounds, and that blunted iron swords.” (Innes 293) One of those exploits is when Achilles has a contest with Hector, the great Trojan hero and the son of Neptune. Hector insults Achilles about their respective heritage, sneering: “Thy sire is mortal; mine is ocean’s king.” (Garth, et al.) After Achilles slays Hector, he caps his revenge by dragging Hector’s body round and round from his chariot in front of the Trojan walls. Finally Neptune, incensed at Achilles’ rude treatment of the body of his son, intervenes so that Paris, who is cowardly in Ovid’s version of this tale, fires his arrow into the vulnerable heel of Achilles and slays him.
After a long debate in Book Thirteen between the heroes Ajax and Ulysses (Odysseus) about who should receive Achilles’ arms, Ulysses’ eloquence convinces the Greeks to award the prize to him. Ajax subsequently goes mad and kills himself. Ulysses then devises the “Trojan Horse” plan to finally defeat the Trojans, and the war ends as Hecuba is driven mad by the deaths of her children. Then Ulysses, punished by Neptune for his part in the downfall of Troy, begins his wanderings. Now that the story has become more human (although the gods are obviously still involved, but more as an influence on humans than essentially living amongst them, as they previously seemed to do), most of the “transformations” are in the nature of madness, death and adventure rather than “magical” physical transformations. In a human sense, then, the world is becoming more stable.
Book Fourteen describes the journey of Aeneas as well as that of Odysseus. While the story of Odysseus is much better known, it is actually the journey of Aeneas that is highly relevant to Metamorphoses.
The son of Anchises and Venus, Aeneas was a cousin of King Priam of Troy and the leader of Troy’s Dardanian allies during the war. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas was commanded by the gods to flee. He led a band of Trojan refugees, who became known as the Aeneads, to Italy. Although Juno hounded the Aeneads, Aeneas eventually fulfilled his destiny with help from his mother. In the section “The heron is born from Ardea’s ruins”, Aeneas was victorious, eventually killing Turnus and marrying Lavinia.
Although Ovid does not give anywhere near the detail of this journey as Virgil, this section is critical to his history because Aenead became the founder of Roman culture. He was the mythical progenitor of the Julian genes through his son, Ascanius, or “Iulus”. The reason this is so important to Ovid is because it justifies the fifteenth and final chapter of his opus, in that Venus persuades Jove to deify Aenead:
Aeneas’s virtues had compelled all the gods, even Juno herself, to bring to an end their ancient feud, and since his young son Julus’s fortunes were firmly founded, Cytherea’s heroic son was ripe for heaven. Venus had sought the opinion of the gods, and throwing her arms round her father’s neck, had said ‘You have never been harsh to me, father, now be kindest of all, I beg you. Grant my Aeneas, who claims you as his grandfather through my bloodline, some divinity, however little – you choose – so long as you grant him something! … The horned god executed Venus’s orders, and purged Aeneas of whatever was mortal, and dispersed it on the water: what was best in him remained. Once purified, his mother anointed his body with divine perfume, touched his lips with a mixture of sweet nectar and ambrosia, and made him a god, whom the Romans named Indiges, admitting him to their temples and altars. (Innes 361-362)
After the Sabine war, the great warrior and king Romulus and his grieving wife, Hersilia, are both deified. Thus is the precedent of a Roman leader becoming a “god” made clear by Ovid. Whether it is by conscious intent or not, Ovid is now describing the actions of humans (albeit some with semi-godlike powers), with the “heavenly” gods merely looking on, and occasionally lending a helping hand in some human endeavor.
That transition may be attributed to the growing influence of actual history versus the stuff of mythology, i.e., vague, distorted tales that went back thousand of years via the oral tradition to exploits of humans that could actually be recorded in more detail with ink on papyrus, or however the early Greeks recorded their history. It may also be because the need for mythology as a replacement for science was decreasing; Mankind was beginning to actually understand the scientific causes of some of the phenomena in the world around them, and understood that it did not take a god to cause lightning and thunder, or the wind to blow, or other such natural events. Therefore, as the need to explain everything as the will of the gods decreased, and the recorded history of people, places and events continued to grow, the “power” of the gods was beginning to wane as the cultural identity of humans as powerful beings in their own right continued to grow.
The final book opens with “Myscelus: the founding of Crotona”, in which the glory of “modern Rome” is extolled. Most of Book Fifteen consists of the teachings of Pythagoras, who was born on the island of Samos, Greece. Around 530 BC he moved to Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and there set up a religious sect. (Britannica) Ovid does not make clear his purpose in including so much of the greatness of Pythagoras, but does make the comment that: “Pythagoras, a Samian by birth, who had fled Samos and its rulers, and, hating their tyranny, was living in voluntary exile.” (Garth, et al.)
Given the tenor of the last two books, it might be presumed that Ovid was once again praising how wonderful the Roman Empire was, and that such a great teacher as Pythagoras had been alienated by the ignorance and oppression of Samos and would prefer to live within the boundaries of the Empire rather than in his native land, which was obviously inferior. In other words, the centers of enlightenment and greatness had been transformed from Greece to Rome, and the world was definitely taking on a Roman identify.
If the greatness of Rome could be in any doubt, that must have been dispelled when Aesculapius, the god of healing, saved Rome from plague and disease. This section ends with the portentous words: “Now it entered Rome, the capital of the world. … There the serpent-child of Phoebus landed, and, resuming his divine form, made an end to grief, and came as a health-giver to the city.” (Innes 384)
The penultimate sections of Metamorphoses are “The Deification of Caesar” and Ovid’s celebration of Augustus Caesar. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica:
The stories are told in chronological order from the creation (the first metamorphosis, of chaos into order) to the death and deification of Julius Caesar (the culminating metamorphosis, again of chaos-that is, the Civil Wars-into order-that is, the Augustan Peace).
Although this book can be seen as a carefully contrived glorification of Roman culture and its past and the worthiness of its current leaders (which it is), it is also the final arrow in the quiver that makes Ovid’s point about transformation. Although the mythological gods have not yet been totally banished, the human race is beginning to rely less on their power, and certainly their physical presence among humans, as in the “old days”. The human “gods” are now recognized as being much more powerful, and can “immortalize” themselves at will-or at least invoke the will of the gods at will. Rome has been transformed into “the capital of the world”, and not only the Empire, but the entire world takes its cultural identity from what happens in that one mighty city.
The end of the poem expresses Ovid’s modest belief that his poem has earned him immortality-which it probably has. However, it is ironic to note that, shortly after the completion of Metamorphoses, Ovid was banished by Augustus from Rome to Tomis on the Black Sea for an unspecified “indiscretion”. (ibid)
From that cosmic story we now turn to the very short, very personal life of Gregor Samsa. Although the title is The Metamorphosis in English speaking countries, there is some doubt as to whether or not that is legitimate.
Victoria Poulakis, now Professor Emerita of English at Northern Virginia Community College, wrote that:
The German title, Die Verwandlung, can be translated as either The Transformation or The Metamorphosis. The most frequent choice is metamorphosis, but this word has the disadvantage of being more “literary” and less commonly used in English than verwandlung is in German. The appearance of this word in the title perhaps too quickly alerts the reader to the strangeness of the story to follow; it doesn’t really fit with the much more “ordinary” tone in which the story is narrated.
Indeed, this choice of translations has tremendous impact on how many readers perceive Die Verwandlung. As one scientist explains the word “metamorphosis”:
Metamorphosis refers to a major change of form or structure during development. Metamorphosis is one of the key elements that makes insects so successful. Many insects have immature stages with completely different habitats from the adults. This means that insects can often exploit valuable food resources while still being able to disperse into new habitats as winged adults. The potential for adaptation and evolution is greatly enhanced by metamorphosis. (Britton)
There is much controversy over whether or not Gregor Samsa depicts a man who has become psychotic and imagines himself to have turned into a giant bug, which is what makes his family fear him, or has indeed been so transmogrified. Part of the ambiguity arises from the fact that Kafka is deliberately vague, and many interpreters of his work have put their own impressions into the work to help clarify their task.
After all, as Poulakis claims, the literal translation of the fist line of The Metamorphosis would be: “As Gregor Samsa one morning from restless dreams awoke, found he himself in his bed into an enormous vermin transformed.” In addition to making that sentence read better in English, many translators have changed that word “vermin” into either “bug” or “insect”. Interestingly, many people envision this “vermin” to be a cockroach, which, much like a butterfly, exists in the nymph stage before its transformation into a universally loathsome insect. However, if the process of metamorphosis indeed greatly enhances the “potential for adaptation and evolution” of an insect, it is quite ironic that, in Gregor Samsa’s case, this transformation inevitably led to his extinction.
Thus, the interpretations of The Metamorphosis range from an individual depiction of psychosis to a symbolic representation of the entire Jewish experience. To understand these interpretations requires a fairly close look at Kafka’s life.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, Bohemia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Hermann Kafka, was a moderately successful merchant and his mother, Julie, was:
… a simple woman … subservient to her overwhelming, ill-tempered husband and his exacting business, she shared with her spouse a lack of comprehension of their son’s unprofitable and possibly unhealthy dedication to the literary “recording of (his) … dreamlike inner life”.
Although born a Jew, Kafka was essentially an atheist, and later became a well-renowned existentialist. He identified with German intellectualism (his best friend was Max Brod), as evidenced by:
The son of a would-be assimilated Jew who held only perfunctorily to the religious practices and social formalities of the Jewish community, Kafka was German both in language and culture…. Kafka’s opposition to established society became apparent when, as an adolescent, he declared himself a socialist as well as an atheist. (ibid)
In spite of thinking of himself as a good German, society was already moving towards the alienation of his heritage. After all, Kafka’s book was first published in 1915, at a time when The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by industrialist Henry Ford (f2), was running a series of articles under the headline of “The International Jew: The World’s Problem”, which was published and distributed in the early 1920s as a four volume set of booklets. This was also a period when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was experiencing great negativity towards Jews, and in 1919 gave birth to the meteoric political career of Adolph Hitler, who was heavily influenced by Ford’s writings (f3).
If The Metamorphosis is actually a depiction of psychosis, it is a classic case of a person who acts in a way that would be totally appropriate for the “creature” he believes himself to be, and the rest of the family is reacting with horror to his insane behavior rather than at a physical presence. If he has indeed become an insect, it becomes clear that, although Gregor Samsa recognizes the physical changes he has undergone, he still believes that he is basically the same person as he always has been. When his sister is about to remove all of the furniture from his room, he thinks:
Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with the old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? (Kafka 57)
This begs the questions of when common alienation becomes madness, perhaps in the manifestation of catatonia or some violent psychoses. In The Politics of Experience, R. D. Laing wrote:
What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience. It is radically estranged from the structure of being. There are forms of alienation that are relatively strange to statistically ‘normal’ forms of alienation. The ‘normally’ alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane. Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labeled by the ‘formal’ majority as bad or mad. (66)
Because of the art they create, many great artists are dismissed by the public as being “eccentric” in their behavior. This question of “normalcy” or “insanity” is very much related to many critics dismissing the works of painters or artists to whom the critic cannot relate, writing off their work as senseless garbage because they cannot comprehend or interpret the work in a way that makes sense to them. In other words, the critic becomes alienated from any work that does not fit into his or her sensibilities of what is true art and what is the mere slapping of paint or words on paper.
In his “Introduction” to Kafka’s short stories, Philip Rahv tells us:
To avoid that common error it is above all necessary to perceive that Kafka is something more than a neurotic artist; he is also an artist of neurosis, that is to say, he succeeds in objectifying through imaginative means the states of mind typical of neurosis and hence in incorporating his private world into the public world we all live in. (ix)
Later, Rahv psychoanalyzes Kafka to a certain extent. He gives us the understanding of Kafka’s early sense of alienation, and claims that this led to his eventual transformation into a great writer of the neurotic human spirit:
Born in Prague in 1883 of middle-class Jewish parents, Kafka appears to have lost his self-confidence early in life, exchanging for it, as he himself put it, “a boundless sense of guilt.” Moods of loss and failure, and the idea of the insolubility even of the most ordinary human problems, depressed his youth and later inspired his art.” (xv)
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the person primarily responsible for Kafka’s childhood angst was his father, who “belonged to a race of giants and was an awesome, admirable, but repulsive tyrant.” This paternal conflict is perhaps most evident in The Judgment, where the son commits suicide at the request of his aging father. However, Britannica goes on to claim that: “The source of Kafka’s despair lies in a sense of ultimate isolation from true communion with all human beings … and with God, or, as he put it, with (the) true indestructible Being.” This statement is not explained, but we might infer that, due to his Jewish heritage, Kafka feels a great guilt because he cannot believe in god, and he is bullied and dismissed by the replacement figure because Hermann believes his son to be a weak dreamer.
In many ways, given that there is no evidence to suggest that Kafka ever read Ovid’s opus, there is a remarkable similarity in the overall work of Ovid and Kafka. Many of Kafka’s stories are about mere mortals battling against “the inhumanity of the powerful and their agents, the violence and barbarity that lurk beneath normal routine.” (ibid) Kafka often referred to his works as parables, which is essentially what mythology is all about: a story made up to explain the way things work in the world, and morality lessons on how humans should act in various circumstances.
Although the above thematic alienation is a great similarity in the two works, it is very interesting to note that the mode of these transformations is totally opposite in nature. As seen in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, every single event, nearly every single relationship, has a cause. With Kafka, many things seem to be totally random. Most significantly, Gregor Samsa’s bizarre overnight transformation into some sort of creature is never explained-it is never even considered. It is as though Kafka assumes that such an incredible transformation could “just be”, and should therefore be accepted as a fait accompli and let life just move on from there. Thus, while Ovid gives us coalescence and creation, which then leads to some sort of alienation as these high passions wane, Kafka simply seems to deliver a sense of cold, indifferent alienation from the very start.
A traveling salesman, Gregor is the sole support of his family, and feels quite guilty that he cannot manage to go to work because he wakes up one day to find that he is no longer human. After trying and failing to get up, he considers what an awful job he has and how he really loathes his work and his boss. Both his mother and then his father knock on his door, trying to get him up and out, but he can’t even answer very well because of the change. Kafka describes this effort and Gregor’s thoughts over the span of seven pages.
At no time are his thoughts along the line of “Oh, my God, I’ve become a monster! How the devil did this happen?” No, it’s more like: “Oh, what a nuisance. I’ve got to get to work!” It’s as though Kafka wants the typical reader to be thinking, “Boy, that would be inconvenient, wouldn’t it?” Gregor does not seem in the least amazed, let alone upset.
In fact, after many attempts to get out of bed and stand up, Kafka writes: “At the same time he did not forget meanwhile to remind himself that cool reflection, the coolest possible, was much better than desperate resolves.” (25) Cool. That is certainly the tenor of most of this story.
It takes 16 pages for Gregor to actually get up and unlock the door with his mouth. Just the pacing of this story is a major difference to the non-stop action of Ovid.
When the family first sees him, there is certainly shock, although no cries of horror or wonderment. His mother faints, and his father looks perplexed and angry before breaking down in tears.
His mother-in spite of the presence of the manager she was standing here with her hair sticking up on end, still a mess from the night-first looked at his father with her hands clasped, then went two steps towards Gregor and collapsed right in the middle of her skirts, which were spread out all around her, her face sunk on her breast, completely concealed. His father clenched his fist with a hostile expression, as if he wished to push Gregor back into his room, then looked uncertainly around the living room, covered his eyes with his hands, and cried so that his mighty breast shook. (34-35)
It is only the manager who seems truly horrified. Thinking that Gregor is chasing the manager, Mr. Samsa drives the creature back into his room with a cane and a rolled-up newspaper, hissing at him as though at a beast. Without a question, however, the family seems to have accepted the fact that this creature is certainly Gregor. This may be one of the reasons that some people interpret the allegory as insanity, as he may look the same to the family, but be behaving like some sort of animal.
At first, Grete is quite solicitous to her brother. She brings him a selection of food she thinks any self-respecting insect would enjoy, then leaves him undisturbed to eat at leisure. She tidies his room, returns the chair to the window, and leaves the casements open for him so he can look out and have fresh air. However, she cannot bear the sight of him.
As a more stark contrast to Ovid, who eloquently describes constant betrayal and violence, love and lust, sin and redemption, there is very little passion throughout Kafka’s work. One of the few truly emotional scenes in The Metamorphosis is when Gregor’s mother wants to visit him in spite of this grotesque transformation: “Later, however she had to be held back by main, force, and when she cried out: ‘Do let me in to Gregor, he is my unfortunate son! Can’t you understand that I must go to him?'” (54) Naturally, when she later does see him she is disgusted, and his sister, Grete, is irritated with him for having allowed their mother to witness his deformity.
One of the few incidents in Kafka’s work that strikes the reader as deliberate causation would be the apple throwing scene. Mr. Samsa becomes intent on venting his frustration, and begins throwing apples at Gregor. One sticks in Gregor’s back, which causes him permanent injury because no one will remove it or treat him.
It is no surprise that the person that causes this injury is the Father figure, Kafka’s “indestructible Being”. It is like Jove striking down Mankind for their perceived sins, when the deity is no less-or perhaps no more-to blame for the causation of the sinning. Perhaps unknowingly, Kafka is again echoing one of the major causations in Ovid’s story.
Moreover, given the Judeo tradition of the Old Testament, is it any wonder that the destructive missile is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? After all, Kafka assured us that his stories were parables, and dealt extensively in symbolism. However, in this case, the alienation between the son and father that leads to this injury is the transformation of their new relationship: Mr. Samsa now allows the door to Gregor’s room to be left open in the evenings so that the creature may be allowed to vicariously partake in the quiet family conversations. In that sense, Mr. Samsa is tacitly allowing Gregor to retain his sense of identity in the family circle, although certainly not as a member who should be seen, let alone loved.
Inevitably, the family is falling apart. Their conversations are either desultory or non-existent. The father falls asleep every night in his armchair; the mother has taken in sewing, and Grete found a job as a salesgirl. And Gregor is neglected.
Who could find time, in this overworked and tired family, to bother about Gregor more than was absolutely needful? The household was reduced more and more; the servant girl was turned off; a gigantic bony charwoman with white hair flying round her head came in the morning and evening to do the rough work; everything else was done by Gregor’s mother, as well as great piles of sewing. (68)
In spite of the fact that she has essentially taken it upon herself to care for Gregor-or perhaps because she has grown tired of it-it is Grete who first voices the complete alienation from the family that Gregor’s transformation has brought on. One evening, Grete is playing the violin for the boarders they took it to help pay the bills. Gregor carefully enters the room to listen, but he is spotted, causing the boarders to threaten to give their notice. Fed up with their situation, it is Greta who declares that they must get rid of Gregor, calling him “this creature”. She tells her father:
“He must go,” cried Gregor’s sister, “that’s the only solution, Father. You must just try to get rid of the idea that this is Gregor. The fact that we’ve believed it for so long is the root of all our trouble. But how can it be Gregor? If this were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that human beings can’t live with such a creature, and he’d have gone away on his own accord. Then we wouldn’t have any brother, but we’d be able to go on living and keep his memory in honor. As it is, this creature persecutes us….” (81)
Overcome with grief, Gregor crawls into his room. Grete springs forward to lock the door. Gregor lies on the floor, unable to move. In his weakened condition, he thinks about what he must do:
He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, it that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath. (83)
When the charwoman finds Gregor’s corpse in the morning, Mr. Samsa seems to regain some of his strength. In a display of power, Mr. Samsa dismisses the lodgers from his house. Of her own accord, the charwoman disposes of the body.
Suddenly, hope blooms again. The three of them take a tram ride out into the country, and realize how suddenly their world has changed completely, and so much for the better:
The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun. Leaning back comfortably in their seats, they talked to each other about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation these were not at all bad, for the three of them had employment, about which they had not really questioned each other at all, were all three admirable and with especially promising future prospects. (88)
Mr. and Mrs. Samsa notice what a pretty girl Grete has grown up to be, and begin thinking of getting her married off. “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.” (89)
Given Kafka’s thoughts on religion, it is not really surprising that “god” is not mentioned in this story, not once. Gregor does not blame god for this hideous transformation, as so many other people in the world would do. The family does curse the heavens or even really blame anyone, merely feeling overwhelmed by “their complete hopelessness and the idea that they had been struck by a misfortune like no one else in their entire circle of relatives and acquaintances.” (68) While not surprising, it is again in stark contrast to the work of Ovid in this regard. As an existentialist, god had no place in Kafka’s world, neither for blame nor for giving thanks. In a way, some might say that this was a logical progression of the place of god in Man’s universe.
Having fully accepted his identity as a “vermin” in a household of humans, no longer a part of the family that his condition was destroying, Gregor did the only thing that he could do for those he still loved: he died. Grete did the only thing that a young girl, in the first blushes of her beauty could do once she was free of her burden: she came back to life. Mr. and Mrs. Samsa immediately began making plans to move to a smaller apartment and to find a husband for Grete. After all of the trauma the transformations in their lives had caused, each member of the little family emerged with a new identity and a secure place in their new world. Indeed, their prospects for the future seemed bright.
Nine years after writing Die Verwandlung, Franz Kafka died at the age of 41. Knowing he was dying of tuberculosis, Kafka twice wrote to his friend and executor, Max Brod, to destroy his manuscripts. (Britannica) Believing that he was worthless and that his writings must be worthless, Kafka was in effect committing literary suicide. He wanted his friend to destroy the works that were essentially his identity. Naturally, Brod did just the opposite. In making that decision for his sick, alienated friend, Brod transformed both Kafka and literary history.
In both Metamorphoses and The Metamorphosis, many characters either want to change or are made to change to make themselves acceptable within their own world, whether that world is cosmic in scope or as small as one room in an apartment. Through their characters and the transformations those characters undergo, the authors demonstrate various forms of alienation and transformation that eventually lead to a sense of personal and/or cultural identity. Those characters want to find their own identity, although they do not necessarily become “better” people (or gods) in order to gain acceptance within themselves and to those around them. An identity does not have to be a positive thing, it is just an understanding of the way in which each person, or even the culture, sees itself. It is an acceptance of what is. When we feel alienated, we seek to change in order to be accepted, whether that is by one’s self or by others, depending on our personality or our circumstances. As in many things in life, it is the process that becomes critical, not necessarily the end product.
In Metamorphoses, there are many victims and there are many heroes, but all of them in some way experience that human transition. Ovid ends his book with the Caesers becoming gods themselves, and everything is perfect in Rome: strong leaders, justice, beautiful buildings, religion, philosophy, and so on. That is the ultimate transformation that came about due to the history he has described. By the end of his story, people have learned how not to be selfish and destructive gods/leaders, but to be kindly, loving and wonderful gods/leaders.
In Kafka’s case, Gregor Samsa felt worthless and in the way, so the best he could do to restore normalcy in the world around him was to die and let his family get back to some sort of happy life, which they did. It is perhaps strange how Kafka’s own death mirrored this belief, as his parents and sisters were essentially ashamed at the menial life which he was living, and ashamed of his writings without ever having read them. However, Kafka’s death did not bring his family happiness. In a final irony, during the time that Kafka’s works were gaining great popularity in French and English speaking countries, Kafka’s three sisters were being exterminated in German concentration camps. (Britannica)
Finally, through their writings, both Ovid and Kafka were able to transform themselves, and to find highly respected identities in this world. In the sense that their works may indeed be “immortal”, as Ovid proclaimed, then they are both gods.
BiographyBase. R. D. Laing Biography. Biography Base, 2004 http://www.biographybase.com/biography/Laing_R_D.html. Web. 17 May 2010.
Britton, Dave. Metamorphosis: a remarkable change. Dr. Dave Britton and Australian Museum, 9 July 2009. http://australianmuseum.net.au/Metamorphosis-a-remarkable-change. Web. 18 May 2010
Boorstin, Daniel. The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1992. Print.
Harper, Douglas. Metamorphosis. Douglas Harper and Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-2010. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Morpheus. Web. 18 May 2010.
Kafka, Franz. Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Ed. Philip Rahv. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Random House, 1952. 19-89. Print.
“Kafka, Franz.” The NewEncyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. 1990. Print
Laing, R.D. Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon, 1983. Print.
Logsdon, Jonathan R. Power, Ignorance, and Anti-Semitism: Henry Ford and His War on Jews. http://history.hanover.edu/hhr/99/hhr99_2.html. Web. 17 May 2010.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955. Print.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al. The Internet Classics Archive. Daniel C. Stevenson and Web Atomics, 1994-2000. http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.html. Web. 15 May 2010.
“Ovid.” The NewEncyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. 1990. Print
Poulakis, Victoria. Translation: What Difference Does it Make? Northern Virginia Community College, 2001. http://www.nvcc.edu/home/vpoulakis/translation/kafkatr1.htm. Web. 15 May 2010.
SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on Metamorphoses. SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2007. Web. 6 May 2010.
Stokes, Phil. Adolf Hitler Biography. http://secondworldwar.co.uk/index.php/biography-of-adolf-hitler. Web. 17 May 2010.
(f1) See BiographyBase for more information on Laing’s influences and philosophies.
(f2) See Logsdon for details on Ford and his publications.
(f3) See Stokes for an explanation of this relationship.