The concept of someone waking up transformed into a giant bug has long intrigued me, and I have been meaning to get a hold of it for some time. Searching Librivox’s archives I stumbled upon it, downloaded it and listened to in on my walk to work.
Aside from the irritation of constantly feeling the need to rewind and listen to missed portions due to the passing cars and trucks, this was a positive experience and I see the opportunity to listen to more books this way. This is especially welcome as my eldest daughter seems to have a thing against me turning in early to get some extra reading time in, as she seems to be fighting sleep a little harder the last few times I have tried to grab some extra.
Gregor Samsa, travelling salesman, wakes up as a giant bug one morning. No rhyme or reason is given as to why Gregor was struck with this transformation. He is a good son, supporting his family with his work. He is slightly disgruntled toward his treatment by his company, but no other indication is given to antagonistic actions directed toward others. In his new state, he is not able to communicate with his family, though he is able to understand what they say.
In this way, we see a second metamorphosis. His family must pull together and develop their own abilities to ensure their survival as the main source of household income, that of Gregor, has obviously become indisposed. The father goes back to work, the mother and sister do needle working, and the sister moves into the workforce. All the while with the quiet acceptance that their son and brother has turned into a giant bug.
And that is what made me read this story after listening to it. Once I got past my geeky need to know what would change someone into a giant bug (I was prepared for a sort of The Fly sort of trip), Kafka lets the story unfold in a deadpan manner. The focus is not on the spectacular or grotesqueness of a man changing into a giant bug, it on the inconvenience that this causes a family. From the discovery that their son has changed, the rest of the family takes it pretty much in stride, switching over to processing what needs to be done to ensure their existence.
Gregor’s sister is the only one who shows interest in providing for his sustenance. He is grateful, but unable to communicate it, and her revulsion eventually shows as she mistakes his posturing in the middle of the room as a sign of aggression. The father and mother avoid going into his room at all. Only when they get the idea to move the furniture out of the room to give their insect tenant more space to move around, does the mother venture into the room. The father approaches eventually only to threaten and throw apples at him, as the sight of Gregor looses the family their boarders.
This is what memorized me throughout the story. It is told from the limited omniscient perspective with Gregor as the centre. As such, it is very limited since, from the start, the narrative focus is stuck in his room. Gregor has a chance to lament his situation as his manager comes to find out why he did not come to work, but the situation that he laments is not his new physical state, but the trials and efforts attached to being a travelling salesman. It was here that if there was some reason based on karma that Gregor was transformed we would expect to hear about it. This scene also changes expectations as to how witnesses would react to this horrific event; the manager is not heard from again, nor, we can assume, does he reveal the whereabouts of a man-sized beetle.
Kafka handles invents such an incredibly unbelievable premise for a story, but then populates it with inversely ordinary scenes of a family eking out a living. Gregor, as bug, exists to his family, but is not acknowledged in this new form. Once the main breadwinner for his family, as a beetle this position is given up, his identity put into question. However, this change in the family dynamic seems to reinvigorate the father as his walking stick is abandoned and his asthma clears up. As mentioned above, the mother and sister find employment. The sister, who Gregor dreamed of getting into the conservatory, gets a job and seeks training to qualify her for a promotion.
The message I am receiving is this: it takes extraordinary circumstances to realize and achieve ordinary potential. Before Gregor’s transformation, the other three members of his family had fallen into dependency on him, a dependency that he was all too happy to perpetuate. His father was retired and that seems to be coupled with the onset of health problems. The mother was stagnated and there was no impression that the sister did anything outside of the house. There was something askew in the Samsa household and when Gregor, in all of his well-meaning efforts, was separated from the situation, it seems that there became a correction in their world. The father is reinstated as the head of the household and the sister as the heir and the hope to extend the family outward from itself. Children must ensure that their parents are taken care of while they secure their own place in the world.
The familial unit is shown together in happier circumstances at the end. Finally allowed to leave the apartment upon the death of Gregor, the Samsa’s are on a train and the final image is the parents admiring the view of a maturing Grete, the sister. Trapped like bugs by a bug, the plight of the Samsa’s is one that is easily imagined. Ailing parents needing support, but through that support loose their own independence; a strange inversion that comes through actions that are intended to be helpful. Unfortunately it is the metaphorical loss of a son and brother that provides the impetus for change and discovering that there is still worth and value in the older generation.