Dream and Reality in The Metamorphosis

The Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing else than mediocrity surrounding genius. Gregor Samsa (pronounced Zamza), the protagonist, has for his parents Flaubertian philistines. They are generally interested in the material side of life and have poor tastes in other regards. About five years back, father Samsa loses all his money, which forces son Samsa to work as a traveling salesman in cloth for one of his father’s creditors. The full responsibility of the family falls on young Samsa’s shoulders as his father would not work anymore, his little sister Grete being too young to work and his mother afflicted with asthma. Samsa also finds an apartment for the family to live in.

Gregor is on the move most of the time, but does spend a few nights a day at home. It is in one such occasion that the following dreadful thing happened:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into corrugated segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, flickered and shimmered helplessly before his eyes. What has happened to me, he thought. It was no dream….”

There is a wonderful rhythmic sound to this dreamy narrative passage. Gregor is half-asleep and gradually realizes that the transformation is indeed real and no nightmare. It also occurs to him that he still retains his human memories and human cognitive capacity, which means that the transformation is incomplete (Grünbein).

“Ach Gott, he thought, what an exhausting job I’ve picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. Many more anxieties on the road than in the office, the plague of worrying about train connections, the bad and irregular meals, casual acquaintances never to be seen again, never to become intimate friends. The hell with it all!”

The metamorphosis, though shocking and striking, is yet grounded in reality. For example, when we go to bed everyday in new surroundings, we are expect to feel a moment of surprise on waking up – a sudden sense of unreality, and this experience must occur repeatedly over in the life of a traveling salesman. It is the sort of thing that makes any sense of continuity in life impossible, as the sense of reality depends upon continuity, upon duration. Also, awakening as a gigantic insect is similar in effect to awakening as Julius Caesar or Benjamin Franklin (Preece 23).

Kafka brings about a sardonic tone to the narrative by using a broad range of literary devices. The story involves a simple analogy between a man (probably Kafka himself) and a well-meaning giant insect, where the former is trying his hardest to fulfill the expectations of his family members yet inevitably fails due to his mental seclusion. Interestingly, Kafka never actually mentions what kind of an insect is Gregor, which is one device of refusing to acknowledge any real change in him. If Gregor’s lack of acknowledgement is symbolic of Kafka’s view of himself, it then begs the question if Kafka was mentally ill to an extent (Grünbein).

Another notable aspect of the novella is the syntax, which highlights the straight-forwardness of the work, while providing the right backdrop for such a powerful and disturbing action. The optimal use of words makes sure that there is not a word too many. Yet, the author’s genius does shine through this façade of impersonal, formal prose that he committed himself to. Usage of imagery is only occasionally seen. At the same time the space devoted to describing Gregor’s authoritarian and militaristic father does appear disproportionate to the rest. (Nabokov)

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