It’s not funny that a man, a Gregor Sama, awakes one day to discover that a he is a monstrous vermin. (Some readers have declared that Sama changed into a giant insect or a cockroach.) It could be funny, some would suggest, in the hands of more humorous writer. The plot could be less cerebral, more slapstick, and loaded with innuendo in other hands. The premise is just ripe for great one-liners, hilarious getups, and situation comedy gold. In Franz Kafka’s hands, however, Metamorphosis is not only not funny. It’s not even humorous. If the story didn’t have such a preposterous premise, we might call a little tragic. As the author David Foster Wallace quote below suggests, however, that’s what makes Kafka so funny.
If a stubborn reader takes umbrage with the fact that some consider Kafka’s masterpiece Metamorphosis funny, because “I know funny!” They would have to admit that using such a disturbing transformation to explain human psychology is one of the finest literary definitions of the word clever.
For young, aspiring writers, Metamorphosis may also be one of the finest examples of Chekov’s razor we have in the literary canon. For what modern writer would attempt to write a story of a man turning into a bug without some sort of explanation for that transformation? Amazon.com reviewers would surely roast a modern writer at the stake for not setting this story up with a proper scientific explanation for how a man could transform in such a manner. Doing otherwise, they might suggest, could damage the story’s credibility. Moviegoers might require a detailed, computer-generated-imagery (CGI) visual description of this transformation, brought to you by the fine people from Lucas Films, LTD. A writer shouldn’t start a story after the transformation, modern audiences might complain. The transformation is the story, or at least the cool part of the story.
We can only guess that throughout the gestation of Metamorphosis Franz Kafka attempted some explanations, and that he couldn’t come up with one he considered satisfactory. Those of us that know literary techniques could also guess that at some point in the creative process, Kafka learned of Chekov’s razor, and Kafka began to believe that those explanations were of no value to anyone but himself, thus leading him to place the explanation on the editing room floor. The only explanation we get is, “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams. He found himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed.” Kafka might have deemed all preceding detail irrelevant and best left to the imagination of the reader.
Gregor’s dreams weren’t even horrific! Evil! or Maddening! Kafka does not lead the reader to believe the transformation was the result of the dreams. The dreams were “uneasy”. Subtle, in other words, and inconsequential to the story.
Kafka’s apparent adherence to Chekov’s razor informs the reader that the transformation is not the story. Kafka apparently deemed the transformation so low on the scale of importance, in the story, that when his publisher informed him that a bug would be on the cover of the story, Kafka replied, “Not that, please not that!” Kafka may have hoped to attract readers with the premise of the transformation, but he hoped that readers would approach the story with more nuance. If Kafka were alive today, and awash in modern lexicon, he might say that readers should read Metamorphosis from an “It is what it is” perspective and nothing more.
Although, Kafka spends some time revealing how the other characters react to Gregor’s transformation by screaming, fainting, and falling, he does not portray these reactions in a humorous manner that we could call overt. The mother falls over a table, and Gregor’s employer runs from the apartment. A reader, reading from the “more is always more” perspective would not be pleased with Franz Kafka, and Kafka might even find himself the subject of constructive criticism for Metamorphosis if he had written this story today.
“You could do so much more with these scenes,” one imagines a group of beta readers informing Franz Kafka, in a modern day writing circle. “Why don’t you have the sister, this Grete, vomit? You could then describe the vomit in intricate detail.” “What about having the father pee his pants in alarm? Bodily functions are always funny.” and Kafka might hear something along the lines of, “You’ve just left us hanging here, begging for more.”
In Kafka’s “it is what it is” hands, however, these reactions are portrayed in a serious, if not sad vein, as the victim of the metamorphosis becomes more ostracized from his own family due to his affliction. The humor, if there is any in this scene, is for the reader to define.
The lesson Metamorphosis provides to the aspiring writer that seeks to learn a lesson in style, is in the power of subtlety. The outlandish storyteller, seeking to provide modern lessons in disturbing and evocative imagery, learns in one reading of this story that the “it is what it is” principle of storytelling should be employed to lay a foundation of pedantic reality from which the reader can leap.
“It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor,” David Foster Wallace said, postulating on the frustration of teaching Franz Kafka, “but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get –the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke– that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch (Translation: That’s really funny).”
Even to those of us that appreciate subtlety, it is difficult to read this quintessential Kafka story, Metamorphosis, without feeling a little letdown by the anti-climactic ending. The monstrous vermin, that is Gregor Samsa, dies without ceremony. The advent of his death is subtle and inconsequential. By the time Gregor succumbs to death, his family is glad to be rid of him. To them, he has become a burden and an embarrassment. The reader infers that the Samsa family members are already at peace with the loss of Gregor, but there is little evidence of this fact in the passages that follow the transformation. The mother does state that she wants to visit her son, at one point, but the family easily dissuades from doing so. After the transformed Gregor finally dies, the Samsa family calls upon the maid to dispose of the carcass, in the manner they might other burdensome vermin.
Kafka scholars state that he agreed that Metamorphosis had an unsatisfactory ending stating: “Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.” After the initial reading of the story, this reader found himself a little letdown too. I fell prey to imagining the possibilities. I thought of other avenues for the story, great one-liners, hilarious getups, and the manner in which the situation could be weaved to comedic gold for others “to get”. The more I thought about Metamorphosis’ ending, the more I thought the imperfect ending might have been the perfect one. For, if as David Foster Wallace suggested, “The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”
If there is humor in Metamorphosis, it cannot be located from the subjective distance most would view a fantastical tale of a man that transforms into an insect of some sort. It requires a long form interpretation from the reader imagining that they are one of the lucky few that will live a long life. For, if we are one of those lucky few, we will begin to gain distance from what we meant throughout our life, and that struggle to establish, and re-establish ourselves will begin to wane, as it did for our loved ones when they began to age and metamorphosed into senile, old people that are incapable of taking care of themselves. They were lucky enough to live long lives, but they eventually became a burden to the family, as we all will when we become reduced to that perspective our loved ones currently have of us. We will reach a point where they no longer cherish what we once were –when we guided them through life and took care of them– and it’s almost a relief to them that we’re gone, and we arrive at our own anti-climactic ending that our loved ones will pay others to dispose of.