Traveling back, far back into the bohemia of yesterday, we find ourselves visiting Prague, then
belonging to Austria-Hungary, in the early part of the nineteen hundreds. This was a time of artistic
creativity and genius. One person comes to mind in particular when thinking about this era, Franz Kafka.
Contained within a letter to one of his friends, Franz Kafka once wrote, “I think we ought to read
only the kind of books that wound and stab us We need the books that affect us like disaster that grieve
us deeply like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from
everyone A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.” To fully understand what is meant by
this quote and check the validity of its message, we must look into the man who spoke it.
Franz Kafka was born to Hermann and Julie Kafka on July 3, 1883. He grew up in Jewish Prague within a
middle class family. Kafka did well in his German high school later going on to earn his law degree in
1906. This allowed him to secure a position with the semipublic Workers Accident Insurance institution
that he worked at until 1917. This position was of great advantage to Kafka as he could write at night and
then go off to work during the day. Much of Kafkas writing remained unpublished until after his death.
Unfortunately tuberculosis struck Kafka in 1917 causing him to take repeated sick leaves and then retire
from his position with the firm. From 1917 to his death on June 3, 1924, Kafka spent much of that time in
sanitariums and health resorts, his tuberculosis finally spreading from his lungs to his larynx. (Grolier
Kafka had a love-hate relationship with his parents especially his father. “Kafkas relationship to
his father dominates all discussions of both his life and his work” (University of Pittsburgh, 04-23-96). This
relationship with his father can explain the reasoning for Kafkas use of the father as the authoritative,
robust, and loud figure weaved into most of his stories. Kafka lived with an emotional dependence on his
parents and had two failed engagements within his lifetime. Beside this fact, Kafka did lead an active social
life being part of some of the more intelligent literary cliques of his time.
Looking into the themes of Kafkas writing, one sees loneliness, frustration, and the guilt of an
individual afflicted with a world beyond his
comprehension or control (Microsoft Encarta, 1994). Kafka is related to philosophy with Soren Aabye
Kierkegaard and 20th century existentialists. “As with most existential writers, Kafka focuses on the
inability of man to
control the natural world around him” (The Existentialists Enigmas Companion). His literary technique
has qualities of realism and fantasy. This allows for the gripping, thought provoking aspect of his writing.
Now that we know Kafka and the time period that he lived, we can go on to describe the deep
rooted meaning behind his quote. What he talks about in his quote can relate to the breaking free of the true
self and understanding. Reading books that cause us to think and evaluate what the author means, we
expand our own intelligence. This expanding of intelligence causes us to come closer to an understanding
of ourselves and our world.
In todays society, this quote has much significance. With most of our culture obsessed and
addicted to the technology of television and radio, we no longer read books of merit. Reading a book like
this causes one to interpret it, deciding what was the authors purpose. Questioning an author is good and
only furthers that progression toward enlightenment. We must realize though that understanding is a never
ending process, forcing us to
think and question more. You may ask then, “Why start questioning in the first place if their is no end?” An
explanation can be given by Mr. Christopher M. Wisniewski saying, “It is this struggle for understanding,
unavoidable need to interpret that keeps us going, keeps us reaching for some kind of truth, no matter how
hopeless that task may sometimes seem. This is also why we create literature; it is through literature that we
hope to create some kind of truth” (Wisniewski, Christopher M., 1996).
As Wisniewski goes on to explain “Kafka shows us that reading is waiting; interpretation is
waiting: we are waiting for the author to reveal the “truth” to us, or for ourselves as readers to reveal the
“truth” to ourselves” (Wisniewski, Christopher M., 1996). The way in which Kafka keeps us “waiting” is
through fascinating ambiguity. His writing is clear yet at the same time vague.
In the novel, The Metamorphosis, we can see this ambiguity as revealed through many factors.
One of which being that of the aspect of fantasy and realism intertwined within the novel. Another aspect
would be the inner self and the false self combating for control.
The sense of realism and fantasy inherent in The Metamorphosis can
be seen in the basic plot itself. The story centers on a man who transforms into a four foot tall beetle and
the repercussions that happen as a result. This brings one to thinking that the story is either a fantasy or
possibly a delusion.
The protagonist of the story is a traveling salesman named, Gregor Samsa. Gregor takes it upon himself to
support the family and paying off a debt that is owed by Gregors father. In the beginning of the story we
hear about this debt that is far from being paid off but after the metamorphosis, the debt is no longer spoken
about. Mr. Walter H. Sokel explains this by saying, “The “debt” or “guilt” was precisely Gregor himself. He
had taken it upon himself, and through the metamorphosis he had become it. The “debt” of the family has
embodied itself in his terrifying figure, has passed over from the family into him. His metamorphosis was
the liberation of the family from the debt” (Sokel, Walter H., pg. 183).
The metamorphosis itself, is the moment of shift within the novel. From this moment onward all the action
occurs in a prescribed fashion. Gregors family now goes through their metamorphosis as Gregor accepts
his. Mr. Ralph Freedman clarifies this saying, “The story develops all consequent changes in both the hero
and the world. As in Gullivers Travels, once an
initial change is accepted, all else follows with convincing logic” (Freedman, Ralph, pg. 134)
Much if not all of the greatness of this work is a result of the change
between the true self and the facade self. The facade self can be defined as the view of the individual by a
part of a unit or possibly as a false view. The facade self of Gregor in The Metamorphosis is that of the
hard working salesman before the transformation. We could define the true self as being that of the view of
an individual by himself, acknowledging his real feelings. The true self can be seen as the insect that
Gregor becomes, the “vermin”.
“What is new in Kafkas creative writing and view of the problem is his realization that the “law”
of mans alienation remains hidden from modern man he does not even know about his own self or his
inner life any longer at all” (Emrich, Wilhelm, pg. 122). This “law” that Wilhelm discusses is that of the
true self. Gregor was determined to escape from his isolation caused by his job, when the time was right,
but he did not know how. When someone becomes so concerned with the final destination, the journey
itself is forsaken.
As much as the individual needs to find themselves, they also need to
find some type of connection within their community. “Who then is the individual alone? Nobody?”
(Honig, Edwin, pg. 141). As Honig explains through various questions, the individual must find a place in
Gregor repressed his own identity and the metamorphosis was his punishment.
The Metamorphosis is a book that irks at the soul. Whether you like the work or not, it makes you
think. By this token the “struggle for understanding” has begun.
Emrich, Wilhelm, The Metamorphosis, Bantam Books,
1972, pg. 122
The Existentialists Enigmas Companion, “The Casa de Kafka.”,
Freedman, Ralph, The Metamorphosis, Bantam Books,
1972, pg. 134
Grolier Incorporated, “Franz Kafka”, 1993
Honig, Edwin, The Metamorphosis, Bantam Books,
1972, pg. 141
Microsoft Encarta, “Kafka, Franz”, 1994
Sokel, Walter H., The Metamorphosis, Bantam Books,
1972, pg. 183
University of Pittsburgh, “Biography of Franz Kafka.”, 04-23-96,
Wisniewski, Christopher M., “My Masters Degree Exam.”, 1996,