Project Gutenberg (PG) puts the book at its Most Popular category (while deleting the “The” in its title, though Wikipedia does not), baffling one of my colleagues (actually my current boss) who recommended the book to me. According to her, it’s a book that should not have been written, the author having no right of being emoish (is that a word?), her statements of course translated in English. She also gave up the book after reading some lines, claiming that she have only read it due to its (1) being in the most popular category of PG, and (2) the cockroach in the cover (which I haven’t seen yet).
But I’ve braved on, my interest piqued by the first line in the first chapter:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.
Before I proceed further, it should be noted that the book is only an English translation (by David Wyllie) from the original German, Die Verwandlung, published in 1915, of Franz Kafka (which, I gather, is more interesting, but I am saddened by the fact that I cannot read German). So maybe, the title of this review should have been “Book Review: Metamorphosis (David Wyllie)”, but what the heck; let’s just get over this thing.
In a nutshell, the book can be summarized as:
a story about a merchant breadwinner of a highly indebted family, who turned into a vermin one day upon waking up, and the subsequent transformation in his and his family’s psychological and physical behaviour while and after he lived.
It’s a tragic story, really, one I can actually relate to, not because of me turning into a vermin and receiving such harsh treatment (nor any family member or relative that I know of, no matter how far, personally experiencing the same thing), but through an analogue we (me partially) have experienced last year until summer.
In the story, the main character, Gregor Samsa, turned into a vermin (which I deduced as a cockroach, though Vladimir Nabokov says that he’s only a large beetle, with Franz Kafka saying nothing but it should not be drawn), himself being disgusted by his transformation, consequently losing his job and the trust and love of his family except his sister, which progressed into his being treated by his family as an animal that must not be seen at all nor be directly interacted with, eventually leading to him seeing himself as a worthless vermin, with the family celebrating his death as a long-withheld blessing at the end.
Yes, it is tragic, and somewhat inhumane in today’s perspective, when segregation and racial discrimination is frowned upon and indifference towards and savage treatment of minorities and disabled persons considered heinous. But it must be noted that the family initially tried to live as normal, as though nothing of significance have happened, with the sister trying to endure more especially when the rest of the family (and even the maids) turned their backs against him. But then, it became too much, especially when the time their existence depended on meager salaries (the whole family was having multiple jobs at this point, with no maids to help administer the house except for the periodical visits of the charwoman, who took an interest in what she termed Gregor Samsa as a dung-beetle) and having tenants in the house came, not mentioning the physical as well as the psychological torture they were experiencing during the time Gregor Samsa was alive (heck, they cannot boast that they have an anthropomorphized vermin as a son!). In light of this, the family’s behaviour becomes much more acceptable, maybe expected, and some may be thinking now why the family have refused to expel or kill him once instead of trying (for months, my gosh!) to live a make-believe world that they have an incapacitated son they must understand and attend to.
It must not be said, though, that Gregor enjoyed making his family miserable; in fact, he was abhorred by it. He understood why his family was treating him such, because in a way he was treating himself as such, too. Told in his perspective (though not first person), the story details his frustrated dreams for his family and sister, his worries for their increasing financial downturn as time goes by, as well as his observations as his monotonic, verminous life continues, especially how his family were treating him. As Trumpkin said in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, “You get treated like a dumb animal long enough, that’s what you become,” and during the last days of his life he had become so much indifferent to his family that he have not cared when his room was treated like a storehouse, nor he had not cared to clean himself in the carpet as he always did when he watched his sister, entranced, playing the violin.
Wikipedia offers an even more realistic analysis, saying that the story might have been based on Kafka’s life.
It is really sad when people treat other people as vermin, especially if they are one’s relatives. This is, in retrospect, what happened to my father’s mother, who was tried to be discarded to Abra by one of his brothers when her memory began failing her (called as pagkaulyanin in Filipino). My parents took care of her, but it was not a blissful experience full of reminiscence as often associated with the elderly; it was a hellish life, especially when you have a sari-sari store to keep up coupled with the fact that my grandmother was as stubborn as a mule (and was uncooperative as that!). At first, she was just unable to move by herself, and still lucid enough to be given instructions and can still be left by herself. But her condition worsened after slipping in the bathroom, leaving her bedridden (well, my father insisted her to be in order to prevent future injuries caused by “straying”) and demanding attention as a child would.
It must be noted that even though we have a store and I have a relatively high-paying job, the experience was not financially insignificant: in fact it was, since her drugs were expensive and we had to buy diapers for her. During this time, her much more wealthy sons and daughter refused to give aid to her, with her (very significantly wealthy) daughter saying to my mother she will give a monthly sustenance of ₱500/month. How abhorrent of her; my mother rightfully refused that “donation”.
This is not even mentioning the physical stress caused by taking care of her (since most of the time she was asleep in the morning but very much awake in the evening), and the psychological effects the experience is having, especially with my mother. For her own mother was the exact opposite and when she passed away it was sudden as she was here today and gone the next, and her mother was not only financially stable but well-loved, and I was surprised to learn that she was granted the privilege of using a saint’s coach as her own when being led to the cemetery.
It was the opposite when she died in our care, during which I am in Manila working. My father’s brothers and sister (those who are alive, anyway) flocked in our house for several days (maybe two at the most, I recall), mourning (though personally, God forbid, I think they were glad that the burden was no more, and that she did not die in their company but ours). Well, according to my mother, they paid about ₱40,000 for the funeral, but as I gather there are still around ₱70,000 left to be paid for in hospital bills, which, if I know right, we are still paying at the time of writing.
Anyways, some readers might find the analogue too thin, forced; but this event prominently echoed in my mind while I was thinking of the book. Too similar because we have experienced what it is like to care for an invalid; my mother realizing how hard it is to love and be patient with an insane person; my father’s temper being dulled by helpless acceptance of the current situation; me and my brother forced to face the reality that there really are people out there irritated by the notion of caring for their useless parent, and being forced to notice the change in our parents’ attitude towards the afflicted. We were also forced to try to understand the condition of being forgetful; what is it to be like waking up and not remembering anything, in a house full of strangers, being scolded and shouted at about something you don’t know why.
But then, as the more religious people say, God does not give you challenges you cannot handle, and looking back I’ll say it was also a blessing in disguise: my father’s temper was dulled; my mother trying to give her best in caring and loving her; me and my brother learning some facts about human behaviour. I’d say the experience was not a waste; it’s just that it was a very disruptive phase in our lives, one which is surely to be remembered. Heck, my parents themselves said that if they reached such a condition in their lives they would very much want us to “throw” them away to the home of the aged, with me appreciating the rationale behind those who do such things (in good faith, of course).
Well, that’s my analogue, but for something more interesting about the novella, we’re going to jump over to the topic of syntax, a branch of linguistics concerning how words are grouped together to form grammatical sentences. According to Wikipedia:
Kafka’s sentences often deliver an unexpected impact just before the period—that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved from the construction of sentences in the original German, which requires that the participle be positioned at the end of the sentence.
Wikipedia provided the dependency graph for the first sentence in the novel, which is graphically interesting.
I have not really took notice of the property while I’m reading, though; I was only “notified” while reading about it on Wikipedia.
To answer my colleague’s rebuttal of the novel mentioned on the second paragraph, and for those seeking to read this book, I think this novella is a work noteworthy to reflect on, especially with regards to the concept of conditional morality. The fact that PG says that its subject is psychological fiction should not deter anyone to read this piece of literature, for you can learn a lot from it, and may relate with it, too. If you are a caretaker of an invalid and feeling like God is punishing you, this book is a must-read, for though it talks about a fictional illness, the experiences are rife with reality, and who knows, maybe after reading this you may become more tolerant of them and realize that they, too, are hurting inside.
I am not going to give “stars” to books as I am reviewing them, for they are very subjective as well as very abstract. But I recommend highly this book for reflective reading, just like how some people like to read the Bible when they are down. Like the Bible, I suggest that you not take the novel at face value; instead, try to read between the lines (though unlike the Bible you need not to read too much). Who knows, you might find some inspiration while reading Kafka’s work (it maybe not really surprising why this book is under PG’s Most Popular category, disregarding that it “… is widely studied in colleges and universities across the western world,” if Wikipedia is to be believed).
After reading it, you can add your own comments/suggestions/reactions/opinions at the comments section of this entry if you like, and maybe we can have a gaily discussion regarding the book.
Speaking of books, as of now I am reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a scandalous book according to Wikipedia. I’ll post my review on this book hopefully by next week. But don’t count on it too much; maybe it will turn out that next week means next month, as this post empirically shows.
Good day again, world, and happy reading! 🙂
- If Vladimir Nabokov Were Franz Kafka’s Editor (isak.typepad.com)
- Kafka’s Metamorphosis: Ten Thoughts (timesflowstemmed.com)
- Vladimir Nabokov Makes Editorial Tweaks to Franz Kafka’s Novella The Metamorphosis (openculture.com)
- Poor…Poor Gregor (camusandme.com)