School has a way of taking beautiful works of art and literature and turning them into the most abysmal, monotonous and over-analyzed trite. I was very glad to have read To Kill a Mockingbird long before high school, because it most certainly would have ruined for me. The same is true of The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men; thanks to my mother’s literary promiscuity (now that doesn’t sound good, does it?), I was exposed to a great canon of wonderful books at a young age, long before school was able to ruin them for me. Some were unsalvageable; I can’t see Macbeth without my mind involuntarily calling up hours of drudgery, trying to find the social implications of the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands.
One that I barely escaped with was Franz Kafka‘s bizarre tragedy, The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung). I discovered it in the school library one day, after someone had suggested it as a great example of existentialism. I’m not to convinced of this anymore, but at the time existentialism was one step away from nihilism, and I was sorts of crazy.
The Metamorphosis is only short, and is very nearly a study in fictional writing taken to an extreme. The best fiction is that which is almost real – introducing a single fantastical element, and watching the fallout. Such is the case when traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up as a giant insect. This is, in a way, the only fiction in the tale; the rest is reactionary.
Imagine being that insect; there is nothing tying you to the reality you knew only the night before; your very body has betrayed you, you are unable to control your movements, and your voice is unrecognizable. Your family, those closest to you, are disgusted by your appearance. Your father wishes you dead, your mother pretends you aren’t there, and only your sister – your closest friend – has even the courage to throw table scraps into the room.
Gregor begins to hide under furniture, all the while desperately clinging to his humanity. His family, seeing his grotesque form, are unaware that he is still able to hear and understand their every word…even when they discuss his own demise.
And eventually, of course, the tale ends; as befits a cockroach, Gregor eventually crawls under a couch, and dies.
Kafka had the strength of will to push his story to its final, logical conclusion; so often remiss in modern fiction, he realized the nature of Gregor’s metamorphosis, and the importance of its permanence. The great changes in life are undoable – both the good, and the bad. Many of us, I’m sure, have at times felt as though we are that insect; deviant, shunned, unwanted and loathed, a burden on those closest to us. And in this, Kafka doesn’t shy away in asking: are we all merely looking for that couch to crawl under?