Beyond words: Looking for meaning

A piece of literature traces its root to varied elements. Culture, customs, class, creed, colour, society, institution of family, individual lives and perspectives all find a place in a piece of writing as literature is nothing than expression of inherent human emotions.

No other writer in history has left a more profound picture of personal life on his writings than Franz Kafka. No writings of Kafka can be read without reading his life and journeys he undertook in the due course of those books. If read without Kafka, his writings are no more than just words on a paper. When read together with his life, they leave an impression that is hard to erase from consciousness. The Metamorphosis, being the only finished novel of Kafka is no different.

Written at the time of turmoil of industrialisation, it represents the true beatings of a shattered society. The grand narratives of naturalism and impressionism fell short to express the ground reality of alienation, where people where being alienated from oneself and where a whole society was on the quest to know the ultimate reality. The question before literature was no longer about magnificent meadows in the land of unknown but about the struggles of a concrete individual. All his writings were a forerunner for the absurdist and existentialist movements that fought to answer these questions and went on to change the whole course of literature.

The plot of metamorphosis is delicately woven with surrealism and expressionism. The major character Gregor Samsa is a travelling salesman. The novel opens with Gregor opening his eyes from a stressful night. The whole narrative is through the eyes of the major character. This aspect of individual perspective over the third person narrative is a distinctive feature of existentialism where the emphasis is on individuals. He wakes up to find himself transformed to a huge vermin. The author never gives a clue of how this had possibly happened. The element of irrationality and dreamy dreary experiences are a mark of his writings. There is barely a boundary between reality and dream. His parents Mrs and Mr Samsa and Sister Grete Samsa were solely depended on him as he was the only bread winner of the family.

The smooth course of the family gets shattered due to his transformation. As the family lost its bread winner it had no other option than to start working. Mr Samsa and Grete starts working for a wage. To his amusement Gregor finds that his father have transformed from a sick old man to a strong fierce man. The book reflects on a lot of universal realities. It shows that it is the responsibilities that define the person not the age. The example of Mr Samsa and Grete is a notable one.

His sister though sympathetic at the beginning, ends up calling him a monster. His mother remains lovable to him but her love is overshadowed under the dominating father. In the due course of his vermin life Gregor comes to know a lot of bitter truths of life. Tormented, ill treated and humiliated, the story ends with the death of Gregor. The family celebrates his death with a picnic. At this time the relationships were increasingly getting based on economic transactions rather than the bonds of love and respect. Metamorphosis echoes this throughout the plot.

As I mentioned earlier The Metamorphosis is a statement of Kafka’s life. The characters of book are replicas from his life. All through his life he was troubled by his dominating, abusive father. In his ‘Letters to Father’, he says, “My writing was about you, indeed, I poured out my complaints there only because I couldn’t pour them out on your breast.” The presence of an abusive father is found throughout his stories. True to the famous sophist notion, for him father was the measure of all things.

Metamorphosis is not just a book for pleasure, its book for heart, for consciousness. There is a hidden meaning beneath each word and each letter echoes a reality. The essence of author is something that is in-erasable in the book. To erase that is the same as erasing fingerprints off a hand. The words won’t belong anywhere. They will just be words and not meanings. I strongly urge that all piece of literature should be read with the author behind. If did so, we start to embark on a fruitful journey of reading.

Reviewed by
Akshaya S.Kumar
1st year Integrated MA
IIT Madras
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