I read a lot of books.
In general, I like most of them, and sometimes they even affect me emotionally, though the latter is rare. I can usually tell when a book will make me emotional or cry because I tend to have specific triggers relating to my personal history.
But recently I was surprised. I got emotional about a book that I had no idea would resonate with me so deeply.
On a whim, I had decided to read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I was in the mood for something short and had access to a copy, so I read it. It’s a classic that I knew little about — a man turns into a bug? — and I knew even less about the author. I had heard lots of things in culture be referred to as ‘Kafkaesque’, meaning they replicated his absurdist style.
But I found The Metamorphosis to be hardly absurd.
Sure, I get why people say that. A guy, Gregor Samsa, wakes up to find that he has transformed into a bug of some kind (though the fact of what Gregor turned in to, and if he did indeed turn into anything, is hotly debated) and the how and why of the event are never explained. That’s all pretty strange.
But despite Gregor’s new bug persona, the feelings, emotions, and tragedy of the story are all human. So human, in fact, I found myself thinking that Kafka had reached into the future, seen the inside of my mind, and used it as a blueprint for Gregor’s struggles.
Absurd? Absolutely. But I related so strongly to what Gregor was feeling, my chest was heavy with the connection. It completely changed my mood and my day.
Because the narrative is so layered, I can see how one could get many different meanings from the text. The book has obviously meant something to many, many people over the years, given how thoroughly it has been discussed and dissected.
But to explain what I got out of it, I’ll have to get into some of the things that happen in the story, so spoilers ahead.
After Gregor realizes what he has become, his family finds out (he lives with his parents and his sister). His parents soundly reject their son, but his sister feeds him and looks in on him and cleans up his room. There are a few occasions where Gregor is beaten or attacked by someone in the house and he is injured and does not really heal from these wounds.
Gregor is trapped in his bedroom and because of his size and the unfamiliarity with his new body, and later, his injuries, he has trouble moving around the space. He can understand his family, but they cannot understand him.
His mother comes around at some point and starts helping his sister take care of him, and they start leaving the bedroom door open for him in the evening so he can see the family at dinner. Through this open door Gregor sees the life he once had, the life that he can no longer participate in.
Because the family now lacks Gregor’s income, the other three reduce their use of paid servants and take jobs. They struggle to support themselves and wish to move to a smaller place, but cannot due to Gregor’s condition. After months of this strained living, they rent some of their space to three men and hide Gregor from them.
In addition to having strangers in the house, Gregor is also more isolated because his sister and mother are so busy all the time that they no longer take care of him like they used to. His room gets dirty and they don’t notice when he stops eating. His sister, in particular, seems to grow bitter at the anchor Gregor has become on her life.
These feelings of being trapped, of not being loved, of worthlessness, of depression and hopelessness, are all things I’ve experienced. My life is difficult in ways that I did not choose and I cannot escape, and I do what I can to make the best out of what I’ve got. But beyond relating to these feelings that Gregor, and to some extent, his family, experience, there were two other aspects that struck me.
The first is that there was no rhyme or reason as to why this happened to Gregor. He didn’t do anything to cause this; it just happened.
I struggle with those bad things in life, minor and major, that just seem to happen, especially when no good comes of them. Sometimes there is not a lesson to be learned or a brighter spot made from dealing with the darkness. Sometimes things just happen to people and they have to deal with them. It’s not fair or just or right, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. I felt this so strongly with Gregor’s situation; he could not stop his transformation or change his situation and it made for a sad and tragic story.
The second aspect of this story that was so moving to me was that there are no villains. Everyone in the story is an imperfect person. Parents reject their son, the sister neglects her brother, Gregor goes a little mad and envisions imprisoning his sister in his room so she can play him the violin forever. But even at their worst, none of these characters are villains or even bad people. They are simply dealing with a difficult situation the best they can.
Gregor wanted certain things to alleviate his great suffering, even understanding they were not good things to want but feeling that getting these things was the only way for him to retain his humanity. His family denied him certain things, not out of malice, but because they didn’t know, and couldn’t know, if he had any humanity left within him.
They all tried their best to handle the crisis. Unfortunately, they all failed. But seeing that they were given an impossible situation to begin with, it is hard to fault them.
My situation may not be as completely impossible as Gregor’s and his family’s, but sometimes it feels that way. Reading Kafka’s words felt like him giving me a nod of recognition and a shrug that simply says, “Well, you may be failing, but who can blame you? At least you’re trying.”
I have kept myself intentionally ignorant of the many examinations of this story until I could write this, so I’m not sure what Kafka intended or what others believe he intended when he wrote The Metamorphosis. Whatever the purpose of the story, the experience of reading this, of having my darkest self feel seen and not judged, is invaluable.
Even if I am just a bug.
Photo Credit: © 2017 James Sutton via Unsplash