And You Thought Bed Bugs Were Bad: Kafka in the 21st Century

Did you ever groan at the thought of getting out of bed and going to work? Have you ever felt belittled by your boss and misunderstood by your co-workers? Ever felt your family didn’t appreciate the hours you put in at work or the money you brought in? Do you feel like a cog in the wheel of a financial machine? I know, I know, who hasn’t.

But take heart . . . . at least you haven’t changed in the night into “monstrous vermin” (3).

300px-metamorphosis

Unlike Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of  The Metamorphosis, you probably will never undergo a literal transformation into a three foot bug. But perhaps, on a particularly bad day when your alarm doesn’t go off, your car won’t start, and your boss is tapping his foot by the time-clock as you punch in one hour and twenty eight minutes late, you may figuratively feel like, well, vermin.

This figurative sense is what Kafka would like the reader to glean from the story.  Instead of a Raymond Carveresque squint into the lives of the suburban down and out, this story, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” is more surreal parable than realist slice of life: Kafka suggests rather than tells. He presents readers not with a plausible character in an unrealistic situation, but with an implausible character in an all too real situation.

The exaggerations of the story are not an attempt at fantasy; instead they’re an attempt to render the unconscious into the physical: a depiction of the fears, anxieties, and desires of an oppressed and alienated individual. In an odd way, the distorted view of “reality” in The Metamorphosis renders the “real” world in a heightened, more accessible form. This figurative sense lends it a timelessness, transforming a story concerning the plight of an early 20th century German textile salesman into the plight of any worker caught in the daily grind of capitalism.

How daily?

At the beginning of a class years ago, just as we were about to begin our discussion of the novel, a student raised his hand and said “This book made me angry.”  I stumbled a bit, preparing to address what I assumed would be a variant of the “why do we have to read this shit” question.  Instead, he followed up by saying  “It reminds me too much of my life.”  A dishwasher at a country club, Gregor’s plight seemed uncomfortably autobiographical.

It was easy to go from there to a Marxist reading of the antagonistic relationship between the proletariat and the capitalist — exemplified in the $55 steak dinner at the country club, and the $7 an hour salary of my angry (and insightful) student.  That difference is called profit motive by capitalists – and exploitation by Marxists.  A more general Marxist reading would explain the dynamic in class differences, the tensions between worker and employer, and the debilitating effects of poverty or wage-slavery.

But since reading the story with this solely in mind seems about as much fun as plowing through the collected works of Chairman Mao, I’m not going to suggest such a strict ideological reading; a work this rich should not be limited to only one interpretation. As one critic observes, Kafka’s special talent “was for finding concrete metaphors and symbolic situations which are so replete with potential meaning that they can be construed in a great variety of ways” (Goodden 4). Accordingly, in my next post, I’ll try and extract a few “potential meaning[s]” from the story by concentrating on its examination of authority and power, depiction of the alienation of modern man, and vivid dramatization of Freudian views of familial relationships; of course, the novel begs many other questions: as Kafka once said, “one reads in order to ask questions” (qtd. in Manguel 89).

Still, at a time when corporate mergers are hailed while the layoffs they cause are ignored or accepted as the cost of the “Global Economy;” a time that has seen steadily increasing corporate profits and stagnant or decreasing real wages; and a time when political offices are more like seats on the stock exchange than forums for public improvement, a novel like The Metamorphosis acts as an corrective, a warning of the end results of such practices.

Unfortunately, it is doubtful if the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch or other titans of capital would respond sympathetically to Gregor’s plight. Safe within their plush cocoons — insulated with treasury bonds and account books from offshore tax shelters (did someone say Panama?) and Swiss bank accounts — they would propose austerity measures to help the Samsa’s get through their tight spot. Shifting to a more reverent tone, they would piously state that in the new disruptive economy reversals of fortunes are to be expected, embraced, and worshipped.

Working stiffs can only hope that these titans will wake up one morning, after a night of “unsettling dreams” (3), and find themselves changed in their beds into

bed-bug

Nothing that a little diatomaceous earth can’t cure: permanently.

Works Cited

Goodden, Christian. “Points of Departure.” The Kafka Debate. Ed. Angel Flores. New York: Gordian Press, 1977. 2-9. Print.

Kafka, Franz.  The Metamorphosis.  New York: Bantam, 1995. Print.

Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading.  New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

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