Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ is, as the name suggests, a story about change. From the moment that Gregor Samsa awakes from his ‘uneasy dreams’, this theme unfolds. The protagonist finds himself ‘transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’; a change so drastic that it borders upon the absurd. Change manifests in all of the main characters in Metamorphosis: Gregor’s sister transforms from a child to a young woman; his parents are forced to evolve their roles in order to survive.
But it is not change that defines Metamorphosis in my eyes, but lack of change: stagnation. Although Gregor’s physical body changes so utterly that it is unrecognisable as a human form, the protagonist’s mind fails to evolve over the course of the story. Gregor approaches life after the metamorphosis, in a manner identical to life before it; in fact Gregor all but ignores the change of his physical body, spending a disproportionally small amount of time worrying about such a significant event. Before the metamorphosis, Gregor works as a travelling salesman. Despite hating the job, the man feels obliged to continue working there, enslaved by his desire to provide for the family. Similarly, after the metamorphosis, this feeling of unfreedom continues. Gregor suffers from isolation in his room, imprisoned within the flat. Intriguingly, Gregor’s overall lack of freedom (both before and after the metamorphosis) is entirely elective: Gregor has the ability to escape his detestable career, if only he abandons his family obligations; he also has the ability to try and escape the flat, and thus find liberty. Neither of these options even occur to Gregor, consequently, he continues to suffer.
This continuation of suffering, this mental indifference towards an evolving environment, poses an interesting idea: Gregor’s metamorphosis was simply an illusion. Before the metamorphosis the man was already an insect, (a fact unknown to both Gregor and the outside world). Gregor lacked friends, failing to even accomplish intimacy with his own family. In short: his life was meaningless, his body merely an empty shell (not dissimilar to an insect’s exoskeleton). The physical change, the metamorphosis, marks the falling of the Gregor’s veil; a chance for the world to finally observe Gregor for what he really is. Gregor, on the other hand, only accepts the metamorphosis at face value; failing to acknowledge the significance of the change. To put it crudely, Gregor is a ‘closet insect’, in so much denial that he fails to even perceive the closet around him.
Whilst I was reading Metamorphosis I was struck by an interesting and philosophical thought regarding human perception: we are blind until we are shown. Kafka was trying to alert us to the fact that we are living amongst illusions. Gregor masqueraded in human form only to discover himself to be an insect. And yet, despite his insect (insectual?) qualities, Gregor’s continuing love for his family and particularly, his sister’s music, demonstrates more humanity than any other character. An illusion within an illusion? The haughty bearded men who see the music as a short-lived muse; surely these are more likely impostors? Gregor’s sister’s journey into adulthood is hidden from her parents until the very final paragraph; yet another illusion? These illusions hide us from one another, but more importantly, they hide us from ourselves.
As humans we fail to look beneath the obvious, just as Gregor’s family fails to see their son and brother for who he really is. Our understanding of human identity is skin-deep; should our bodies change, our identity is also distorted and lost.
It has long fascinated me how, despite the brain’s control of all bodily organs, we are almost completely unaware of their presence beneath our flesh. If our organs were laid out before us, we would fail to recognise them as ourselves. This juxtaposition between our mental perception of reality and the physical truth of it, strikes disharmony between the mind and the body (an argument often used to support the existence of the soul). Indeed, Metamorphosis is as much about change (or lack thereof), as it is about this disconnection between the mind and the body.
Personally I do not believe in the existence of a soul (for reasons I shall not currently discuss), but the existence of this disharmony between the conscious mind and the body is undeniable. This disconnection becomes all the more prominent in the case of transgender individuals (people whose psychological gender identities do not match their assigned sex). Sufferers of Body Identity Integrity Disorder hold even more puzzling attitudes towards their own body, utterly believing that a particular section of it (i.e. a limb) does not belong to them.
Unfortunately I cannot answer with authority as to why our bodies seem to be so out of sync with our minds. Somehow I fear that, like the characters in Kafka’s tale, the answer is disguised: cloaked in illusion…
“Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”Walt Whitman – I Sing the Body Electric