Twain in the 21st Century

One of the meta-ironies of the late, lamented Colbert Report was that some conservatives had difficulty perceiving its, well, irony.  In other words, they thought the right wing bloviator Stephen Colbert was an O’Reilly rip off instead of an O’Reilly satire.


This left me wondering.  What about earlier satirists?  Did they also experience meta-ironies?

What, for instance, were Southern readers thinking in 1884 when they ordered a copy of Mark Twain’s forthcoming The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which promised, in large type, to be a “MINE OF HUMOR” and, as an “amusing book . . . . A CURE FOR MELANCHOLY.”



They were expecting laughs.

So what was going through their minds when, in chapter 16, they read “Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

Those still harboring racist sympathies – in other words, most Southerners – yet who were capable of empathy would squirm a bit.  It’s one thing to live with the memory that buying and selling children was as natural as breathing a mere sixteen years earlier; it’s another thing to see it in black and white.  This early chapter primes readers for the moral journey of Huck’s gradual – though ultimately limited –realization of Jim’s humanity[1], a journey completed under the protective cloak of satire.

In their review the venerable Springfield Republican recognized the “bitter vein of satire” in his work, but bemoaned its “degenera[cy] into a gross trifling with every fine feeling.”  In other words, they blamed the messenger not for the message but for how he said it.

Twain’s satire carries through to the much maligned final chapters where it seems that many modern critics (starting with Leo Marx[2]) miss the “bitter” satire of Jim’s prolonged enslavement – and endangerment – at the hands of Huck and Tom.  To me, the final third of the novel is a metacommentary on the life of blacks in the Jim Crow South: free, but still imprisoned by people like Tom, who could not separate fact (blacks are human) from fiction (blacks are sub-human and deserving of second class status – separate and not equal).  This captures the zeitgeist of the South where a creeping tide of racial violence led Twain to write – but never publish – “The United States of Lyncherdom.”


This 1901 essay sheds light on Huck’s complicity in Jim’s treatment – and our own conflicted times.  Twain argues that most people, like Huck, are intrinsically moral, but lack the courage of their convictions . . . and they’re always looking for an excuse to pile on the hate.

Why does it [the crowd at lynchings] lift no hand or voice in protest? Only because it would be unpopular to do it, I think; each man is afraid of his neighbor’s disapproval–a thing which, to the general run of the race, is more dreaded than wounds and death. When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children. Really to see it? No–they come only because they are afraid to stay at home, lest it be noticed and offensively commented upon.

Thus when Huck is beached in Arkansas and finds out Jim is at the Phelps’ place, he first considers writing to Miss Watson and letting her know where Jim is.  What stops him is, as Twain notes above, “his neighbor’s disapproval.”  Huck is worried that “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame” (Chap. 31).  For Twain shame, at first, triumphs over morality.  But it’s “thinking” that saves him.  Remembering all their good times on the river, and the resulting bonds of affection, moves him to renounce what he sees is his Christian (read, social) duty to treat a man like property and instead make a conscious decision to “go to hell” (Chap. 31).

After this big reveal, why go on?  Why allow Jim, at the end of the novel, to suffer indignities at the hands of Tom?

The problem, again, was people.  As long as Huck is out of the orbit of Southern convention (on Jackson island, on the raft) he follows the dictates of his innate morality – which Twain in “Lyncherdom” believes we all possess.  It’s when Huck is caught in the gravitational pull of imagination, hate, and envy that he loses his way and becomes a satellite, caught in the web of delusions that dooms Tom, and later the South, to keep a free man enslaved and fight a war for an idealized and toxic vision of chivalry.

And this is where the past become present.  Tom and the rest of the South, like some people today, was/is lost in an imagined past.  He wants to make America great again by transforming it to the fictional world of his romance and adventure novels.[3]  But the novel points out the problems with living in a mediated world.

In Chapter 3, Huck recounts his disillusionment with Tom’s “reality,” a reality based on romantic fiction and wholly disconnected with the world they live in. This is so delicious it deserves to be recounted in full:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it. One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready. He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

So here we find a leader, Tom, imposing his fantasy world onto the real world.  What’s interesting here is that Tom and his gang are so blinded by their delusions, that even in this most religious of times and locales, they 1) attack a Sunday school class; 2) steal religious texts.  It’s almost like imagining a political candidate today leading a hedonistic lifestyle – running casinos, serial marriages, bragging about groping women – and finding support from Evangelical Christians.  Twain, getting the jump on cognitive theorists, understood that for people like Tom the power of a narrative – particularly one you want to believe – trumps even religious values.

Twain makes clear that such ideals lead to chaos; consider the name of the steamboat wrecked and sinking into the Mississippi: The Sir Walter Scott.  In Life on the Mississippi, the book about his life on the river completed while working on Huck Finn, he writes that the Southern infatuation with the world depicted in Scott’s books

sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.

Instead of living in this world of fiction that was the antebellum – and Jim Crow – South, Huck prefers the realities of the frontier.  The last words of the novel, where Huck plans to “light out for the Territory” — on the surface a light hearted jest about his rejection of the “manners” of the South — could also be read as a rejection of its mores: he’d “been there before,” and would rather go to hell.

An imagined past today?  Complete with “decayed and swinish forms of religion . . . decayed and degraded systems of government, . . . [and] sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds”?  Sure, let’s make America great again.  But just when were we great – as opposed to being great all along?[4]  The years are all over the map, but many of those who think Jim would look best in an orange jumpsuit believe that the mid 1960s were the best – and that it’s all gone downhill from there.

Funny, just a few years later – the 80s – is when the gap between the wealthy and everyone else started increasing.  And he who reigned over said spread? King/Demigod Reagan. He made everyone feel good while he oversaw a massive transfer of wealth (via tax de/reform) from the working class to the wealthy.  Like the Duke and the Dauphin during their con of the Wilkes daughters, he was able to fool most of the townspeople, except for the elites, Dr. Robinson, the lawyer Levi Bell, etc., who when faced with fraud called it out – and even laughed in its/their face/s.

And when confronted with the expert opinions of Robinson and Bell (who had actually heard an English accent and could tell that the Dauphin was a Cracker masquerading as a Briton), what did the townspeople do with this information?

They called it fake news and handed the farm to the fraudsters.

After the face off in the Wilkes’ parlor, where Dr. Robinson warned the sisters against the Dauphin, Mary Jane Wilkes votes with her feelings, thrusts a bag of money into the Dauphin’s arms, telling him “Take this six thousand dollars, and invest for me and my sisters any way you want to, and don’t give us no receipt for it” (Chap. 25).  And in case readers miss the What’s the Matter With Kansas comparison of people not acting in their best economic interests Twain generously sets up for future generations of readers, he includes a gloss on Hofstadter’s later history of anti-intellectualism in America.  In the following chapter he makes clear how the hucksters feel about the rubes: the Dauphin confides to the Duke “Cuss the doctor!  What do we k’yer for him?  Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side?  And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” (Chap. 26).

Ahhh. . . . majorities.  Particularly electoral majorities who reject the advice of doctors and others who they perceive hold them in contempt . . . .

business insider

This is where it gets interesting for readers today.  You know the minority of Americans who voted for Trump as change agent?  Well the change they see coming ain’t so good – and they know it.  Pew Research notes that “fewer Republicans say ‘people like yourself’ will gain influence in Trump’s presidency than said this before Bush took office (45% now, 56% then).”  Now get ready for an obvious bomb: 80% of Republicans believe that businesses and corporation will gain influence under a Trump presidency[5].  Apparently, the Americans who voted for Trump are looking fondly back to those times when more government influence by businesses and corporations meant a windfall for “people like them.”  Now when was that again? . . . . The 1890s . . . the 1930s . . . the 2000s . . . well those certainly were years of strong corporate influence and a rise of the plutocracy.

How did it end for the “people like yourself” – the Regan Democrats who put Trump into office?  Unless you’re in the top 10%, cue minor chords, thunder – and add a bolt of lightning.

But don’t sit back and wait for a great awakening: people will endure grievous afflictions to nourish their imaginations.  It’s worth remembering that at the end of the novel “Tom was the gladdest of all because he had a bullet in the calf of his leg” (Chap. 40).

I’m left now wondering how “readers” of current politics understand irony.  For instance, are Trump supporters squirming, like Twain’s nineteenth century readers, when they discover that fears of foreign influence by Hilary have morphed into investigations of Russian contacts by Trump?  Now that it’s been revealed that Vice President Pence used a private email server during his time as governor, will crowds at Trump rallies start chanting “Lock him up!”?  When Trump spends a quarter of Obama’s total travel expenses during the first few months in office, will they start telling him to get back to work?


Or will they, like the conservatives who failed to see the irony and satire in Colbert, pile on board the Sir Walter Scott/HMS Fox News and sail down the Mississippi?

Me?  I’m lighting out for the territory.



[1] That limitation, of course, is the idea that the only way for Jim to become a man is to lose his race.  As Huck says here – and in Chapter 42 after Jim selflessly stays with the wounded Tom Sawyer – Jim is “white.”  As James Baldwin later observed in Notes on a Native Son, before white America can “accept” blacks, it insists “they at once cease to be Negroes.”

[2] Marx, Leo.  “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling and Huckleberry Finn.”  American Scholar, 1953.

[3] Tom to Ben Harper:

“I don’t know.  But that’s what they do.  I’ve seen it in books; and so of course that’s what we’ve got to do.”
“But how can we do it if we don’t know what it is?”
“Why, blame it all, we’ve got to do it.  Don’t I tell you it’s in the books?  Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up?”
“Oh, that’s all very fine to say, Tom Sawyer, but how in the nation are these fellows going to be ransomed if we don’t know how to do it to them?—that’s the thing I want to get at.  Now, what do you reckon it is?” (Chap. 2).

[4] With, of course, the acknowledgement that this greatness is qualified according to when, where and who you are.  I’m guessing Jim didn’t think merica’ was too great in the 1830s.

[5] And a stat to file in the “Scratching My Head” folder: the same survey found that 43% of Republicans believe that “Poor People” will gain influence under a Trump presidency.


Lost in a Cave

Plato was right.

In “Allegory of the Cave,” he presents listeners/readers with a thought experiment.

What would happen if a group of people were confined in a cave and constrained in such a way that they believed shadows on the wall were reality?  What would they do if one of their number was freed and learned that the shadows were merely a ghostly absence of reality, and then returned to spread the truth to his still imprisoned friends?

“You lie!” they would shout.

Thus was born the philosophical idea that our perceptions create our realities (note plural), an idea which helps explains the difficulty of dislodging emotional truths from our minds.

For me, and for the purposes of this blog, it also explains the power of fiction and its ability to insinuate itself into “real” life.

Stephen King, in a piece published in today’s Guardian, has a marvelous take on Trump and Trump voters.  After a deft analysis of the election, he proceeds with a round table discussion with “Trump voters” born not of the womb but of his protean imagination.

It’s a perfect example of how writers of fiction, as Tim O’Brien notes in his novel The Things They Carried, are adept at “making up a few things to get at the real truth.”



Who’s Afraid of Poetry?

Apparently, demagogues.

That, at least, is the message sent by the new administration, which broke a fifty year run of poetry at the inaugural.

Of course it was probably difficult to find a poet worth her salt to versify Trump’s coronation.


Still, it would have been easy to pull an appropriate poem from the canon.

A particularly apropos work would be Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

A bit dramatic?

Consider the following:

  • every mention of climate change and LGBT rights was deleted from the White House web page, right at noon, when the new administration took over.
  • Trump’s America First Foreign Policy page opens with the Orwellian line “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy” (Orwell’s version? “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”).
  • The exaggerations of his inauguration speech: “You came by the tens of millions [600,000] to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
  • And the free speech chilling “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.”

We have a clear view of the beast . . . and innocence has certainly been drowned.

The prophetic lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” are sadly too familiar.

Surprisingly, no one recited this poem today.

And that’s a shame because poetry has the power to move people, even unconsciously, as William Carlos Williams notes in “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

                                  It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

The nation died a bit on this inauguration day.

But it will, like the weeds in Williams’ “Spring and All,” “grip down and begin to awaken.”

Poetry: if you can’t handle it, you can’t handle the truth.

Living Like it’s 1939

Okay, 1938, but who’s counting.

In The Nation magazine that year, E.M. Forster, who penned the phrase “only connect” that gives this site its name, wrote an essay titled “What I Believe.”


The first few lines capture the signs o’ the times, both then and now.

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp.

With Brownshirts on the march in Germany, this description of the age was appropriate.

Now?  “religious and racial persecution” . . .  “ignorance rules” . . . and my favorite, science as a “subservient pimp”?

You decide.

And post your favorite excerpts in the Comments section.

What I Believe” by E.M. Forster

Gregor in the Real World

From the opening paragraphs, Kafka makes it clear that the dehumanizing nature of Gregor’s job is largely responsible for his alienation and transformation. After the first three paragraphs establish the premise of the story – a tabloidish tale of a man transformed into a “monstrous vermin” (3) – one of the main causes of this transformation is revealed: “Oh God . . . what a grueling job I’ve picked!” (4). Gregor’s anxiety about his lateness is darkly comic: here is a man transformed into some sort of gigantic insect, yet all he’s worried about is getting to work on time!!!??? Yet his anxiety is well-founded — as the reader soon finds out. He isn’t even fifteen minutes late when the “office manager himself” appears (9), and after dismissing any thoughts of Gregor’s illness, insinuates that he’s absconded with funds, and complains about his job performance – all without actually seeing if he’s even conscious.


Gregor’s anxiety about work attests to the pressures of his job. It wears down his bodily and mental resistance, giving rise to feelings of alienation – that feeling of loneliness and despair that stems (in his case) from stress and lack of human contact. His physical exhaustion points toward the debilitating nature of his work. Upon awakening that first morning, he complains that “Human beings have to have their sleep” (4). The sentence is constructed like a tautology and pursuing the logic of it to its end points to the connection between his work and his transformation. Since his business prevents him from getting enough sleep and humans “have to have” sleep, we can only conclude that Gregor is not human and that this condition is a result of his job.

Similarly, his mental state, given his position and the authoritarian atmosphere that seems to dominate his work, preys on his mind and weakens his self-esteem. As a traveling salesman Gregor never receives sustained human contact. And without this contact, Kafka suggests, a person loses humanity. Complaining about his job, Gregor laments that he is “constantly seeing new faces,” and never has a chance to develop “relationships that last or get more intimate” (4). As many psychological studies have shown, personal contact is essential to mental health. His job makes it impossible to form the emotional ties that would prevent the feelings of isolation and loneliness that lead to alienation. Not only can’t he make friends, but the atmosphere at the home office is tainted by an authoritarian boss who “sits on the desk and talks down from the heights to the employees” (4). It’s clear that with such a antagonistic relationship, Gregor will not find any emotional fulfillment at his workplace. His occupation, which requires all of his intellectual, emotional, and physical energies, consists of a cold, antiseptic routine, devoid of the human touches which contribute to an employee’s well-begin: there will be no water-cooler bull sessions for Gregor.. It does not allow the freedom of thought and the basic traits of humanity deemed essential for mental health.

And this breakdown in mental health is where Marx comes in.  Walter Sokel, one of the most informed critics on Kafka, makes the connection between work, Marxism, and alienation clear; he notes that for Marx,

Only where work appears as its own reward are human beings truly human. Where it is imposed by economic necessity, the worker is not merely alienated from himself as an individual; he is estranged from his humanity. Marx’s idea of human self-alienation is not restricted to factory work, but includes any kind of work in which an individual is engaged merely for the wage or income it beings him. The worker is dehumanized wherever his work fails to involve his creative urge and desire. (Sokel 106)

The lack of creativity in his job is made explicit when the narrator, communicating Gregor’s thoughts, observes that “He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone” (5). This is a withering denunciation of the place of the worker in a capitalist society. Instead of being valued as a contributing member of the establishment, workers like Gregor are impersonal, cogs in the wheel of the corporation, without individuality or even humanity. Such distancing makes it much easier for managers and invest bankers to rationalize mergers or acquisitions which result in mass layoffs – or for office managers to accuse their salesmen of ineptitude, recalcitrance, and malfeasance. Ironically, Gregor has become what his boss wanted: he is, indeed, “without brains or backbone;” instead, he has to make do with a nerve bundle and an exoskeleton. Kafka isn’t suggesting that work itself is the problem: it’s not that Gregor is a slacker who only wants to stay home and make picture frames. The problem is in the all-consuming nature of work in a capitalist society. To ensure his position, Gregor must live, breath, and sleep his job. Such a life is bound to eventually crack the will of a person. . . . or transform them into a guest at the Roach Motel.

Capitalism’s pervasiveness and destructiveness is seen both in his treatment at the hands of his company, and in the depiction of the Samsa family, where capital gains, instead of familial care, rule. The story portrays capitalism as essentially parasitic: the capitalist feeds off the labor of the worker just as a leech sucks the blood of its host. This parasitism works on several levels. First, we see the parasitism of the textile company; it retains its connection to Gregor – its host – until he has nothing left to offer it. Likewise, the family, ensconced around the breakfast table and growing fat and comfortable at Gregor’s expense, feeds off of Gregor, and is all too ready to discard him when he no longer provides nourishment. The power of the capitalist – and conversely the futility of the worker – is illustrated in Gregor’s ill-treatment at both of their hands. Although he has worked hard both to enrich his company and support his family, his only reward is the ashcan. His worth is clearly demonstrated by the consideration of his family after his death: once released of the burden of maintaining him, they rapidly forget him. The last paragraph finds them not brooding over the death of a favored son, but planning for a future that now looks rosy indeed, especially since they’ve finally shed the desiccated host that had supported them for so long. Yet the hungry eyes they cast on Grete’s body suggest that the Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, in true capitalist form, will soon find a replacement host to feed upon.

This portrayal of the Samsa family as a microcosm of capitalism is revealed in the discussion of the family finances. Think, for a moment, what you would do if you discovered your son had become a “monstrous vermin.” I can safely assume that most of you would try to get a doctor, bring in other relatives, or try to make him as comfortable as possible. The family’s actions, and particularly those of his father, show clearly that profit motive is what rules in the Samsa household. When the narrator notes that “In the course of the very first day,” Mr. Samsa began discussing the “family’s financial situation” (26), it’s clear that they had only looked upon Gregor as a wage-slave. To make the connection between capitalism and the family even more complete, Kafka includes an odd detail about the Samsa’s finances. Instead of living hand to mouth, as would be expected given the nature of their situation (father owing money due to bankruptcy), Mr. Samsa had skimmed off some of the money Gregor had given him, and put it aside. While at first this sounds like a prudent measure, it is actually a mirror image of what the textile company had been doing as well: making money off of Gregor’s labor. By doing so, Mr. Samsa has accumulated, as Kafka telling notes, “capital” (28). To make the irony clear, Kafka has Gregor “delighted” at this, yet adds,

Of course he actually could have paid off more of his father’s debt to the boss with the money and the day on which he could have gotten rid of his job would have been much closer, but now things were undoubtedly better the way his father had arranged them. (28)

Things, of course, are not much better. The job has literally sentenced Gregor to a slow death, and Kafka uses this bitter irony – Gregor rejoicing at his own annihilation – to expose the dangers of capitalism. By illustrating the invasive nature of capitalism (a parasite infecting both work and family), Kafka suggests that it’s not only Gregor or his particular job that is at fault, but the nature of any work or relationship that uses labor as its capital.

In another connection between the world of work and family, a strange doubling occurs. Just as the father assumes the role of the capitalist, he also assumes the role of authority figure. Like the boss at the textile factory, Mr. Samsa speaks from a higher position. With Gregor now crawling on his stomach, his sense of perception has radically changed, and his father literally looms up before him, like a figure enlarged and distorted by a fun-house mirror. Once he has to fend for himself, Mr. Samsa reassumes his role as the family patriarch. Prior to the metamorphosis, he is frail and weak: he needed both Gregor and his mother to “shuffle along” on holiday walks (38). Yet how real is his frailty? From his first appearance in the text, Kafka makes it clear that he is far from the impotent old man he claims to be. We first see him knocking at Gregor’s door, “feebly, but with his fist” (6). The qualifying phrase “but with his fist” undercuts the ostensible weakness (“feebly”) of his action. Using a classic symbol of male power – a fist – Kafka shows that there is a latent dominance in Mr. Samsa that is waiting for an opportune moment to surface.

Two other symbols of oppression and authority, boots and uniforms, help establish Mr. Samsa’s place in the household. Right before he bombards his son with apples, Gregor quails at the “gigantic size of the soles of his boots” which his father “lifted . . . unusually high off the floor” (38). Conveying both a feeling of his distaste for his son – he’ll crush him like a bug – and oppression – the image of someone being stamped out – the boot signifies his father’s treatment of Gregor as a thing to be removed. In a similar fashion, the militaristic cut of his messenger’s uniform reinforces the air of authority that now surrounds his father. Note, especially, how he “refused” (41) to remove it in his home. Leaving it on as a sign of his rediscovered power, it seems a constant reminder to Gregor that he has been displaced and is no longer welcome: the old parasite (Mr. Samsa) will not willingly become a host to the new parasite (Gregor).

Yet the argument can (and has) been made that a strict Marxist interpretation makes Gregor too willing of a victim. In other words, he could have always quit his job and gone elsewhere. But showing how money and capitalist inclinations have corrupted even the sanctity of the household dooms any chance of true choice. This reveals the existentialist core of the story. Gregor’s passivity in the face of his transformation reflects the existentialist belief that all actions are ultimately futile because there is no real choice. Life is, to borrow the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To me, this existentialist view, which Kafka exploits in the story, explains Gregor’s acceptance of his fate. At the last few moments of his life, after he has heard his sister denounce him and his family agree with her, he “thought back on his family with deep emotion and love” (54). Instead of railing against the treatment he has received, he agrees that he’s become a burden: “His conviction that he would have to disappear was, if possible, even firmer than his sister’s” (54). Such thoughts reveal the resignation with which Gregor viewed life. No matter what situation he was placed in, even a change into a vermin, he would adjust to it and eventually accept it. Gregor himself seems to have sublimated these feelings of insecurity and inferiority deep into his own unconscious. His acceptance of his new, vermin self, suggests it is not a wholesale transformation but the final step in an ongoing process.

Indeed, throughout the story he exhibits an eerie acceptance of his new state, from his lack of wonder about his metamorphosis to the way he readily adapts to a bug’s life. His first adaptation is physical. When he first falls out of bed, he still thinks of himself as human. Instead of crawling towards the door, he attempts to stand upright, ignoring the “pains in his abdomen” (13) caused by his exertions. Then, after painfully making his way towards the door and opening it, he delivers his long speech to the office manager. It isn’t until he falls onto the floor and uses his legs that “he has a feeling of physical well-being” (17). In other words, it’s only when he acts like a bug that he is comfortable. Instead of railing at this condition, he marvels at it, glad that his legs “strained to carry him wherever he wanted to go” (17). This bland acceptance implies that this new state was something he had anticipated, or even desired, for a long time.

A Freudian critic would argue that his id has taken over: subconsciously Gregor has always wanted to regress to a primitive state, probably because he wants the affection of his mother (note that the last person he looks at is his mother [53]). Allowing his unconscious to take over is also a way of escaping the pressures of his life and, he must have hoped, shedding his sense of alienation by switching roles and allowing his family to take care of him. But from a Freudian standpoint, such a regression to an id state would only further alienate Gregor. Indeed, that is what the story proves. Far from drawing his family to him, he becomes a specter of horror and disgrace.

Yet even in his changed state, Gregor dearly wants to retain his human nature. This is most clearly seen – in Freudian terms – when his mother and Grete attempt to clear out his room. At first, he is happy to have his room cleared of furniture. But his mother’s words “doesn’t it look as if by removing his furniture we were showing him that we have given up all hope of his getting better. . . ?” (33), jar him back to human sensibilities. He wonders why he had at first wanted to “have his warm room . . . changed into a cave” (33). The choice of words here starkly emphasize his change. He had wanted his “room,” with all its human associations, converted into a “cave,” which connotes the animal. Without the mother’s reminder, his id would have maintained its dominance, actively asserting itself over the more socialized ego. For one moment, his ego prevails over his id. (I know all this id and ego talk sounds a bit, well, silly; bear with me: I’m not the world’s best Freudian critic, but I do think it works well with this story. . . . I’m just trying to show you how.) Desperate to keep from “totally forgetting his human past” (33), he decides that he must now prevent them from removing anything else from his room. He breaks out and, confused and disoriented, instinctively tries to save the first thing he sees, the picture of the girl. A closer examination of the picture itself and Gregor’s odd “attachment” to it reveals, in a rather grotesquely touching way, his desire to remain in the human world.

The detail Kafka bestows on the picture makes it an important Freudian symbol; it is the only piece of furniture from Gregor’s room that is described in depth. In fact, it makes it’s appearance early, in the second paragraph to be exact, where it is described as a “lady done up in a fur hat and a fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared” (3). Viewed in Freudian terms, the picture, with its phallic arm disappearing into fur, is an obvious symbol of intercourse. For Gregor, it had the attraction of a pin-up (if the story was set today, it’d be a Pamela Anderson poster). Thus, we need to examine why he decides to save this instead of, for example, his desk. Instinct, I think, is the operative word here. Note his position on the picture: he crawls over it, and “pressed himself against the glass, which gave a good surface to stick to and soothed his hot belly” (35). Later, when he tries to remove himself to assist his sister, he is “stuck to the glass and has to tear himself loose by force” (36). It seems that he was, shall we say, amusing himself in a carnal fashion while pressed against the pin-up. On one level, this is a bit disgusting (okay, more than a bit disgusting), yet on another, and more human level, it is quite poignant and sad. Apparently, even two months after his metamorphosis, Gregor is still attracted, sexually, to humans. That basic instinct (the strongest after the instincts for sustenance and self-preservation) to reproduce is still strong in him. He is drawn, not to the stack of Playbug magazines in the corner, but to a human image of sensuality. Considered in that light, instead of a tawdry spectacle of perversion, this episode becomes a touching sign of Gregor’s desire to retain his humanity.

As long as we’re talking (okay, I’m talking), about Freud and sexuality, it’s best to clear the table of the other Freudian aspects of the story, specifically, the oedipal conflicts between his father, and the hint of incest Gregor exhibits towards his sister. A Freudian critic would place the authoritarianism of his father not as an outgrowth of capitalism, but as the manifestation of unresolved tensions in the relationship between mother and son. As I suggested earlier, many critics see Gregor as a metaphor for the id, a person reduced to his instinctual core. As such, the desire for untoward attention (be it breast-feeding, sex, or just that special feeling of closeness felt by all infants) from his mother which this state fosters would be unconsciously – or even consciously – acknowledged by his father. This drama is played out at the end of section II, when Gregor lies helpless after being struck on the back with that oh-so-symbolic fruit, an apple (fruit that brings with it the knowledge of good and evil; according to the bible, the faculties that make us human). From a Freudian standpoint, Mr. Samsa’s attack was an attempt to beat back the id that he, at some unconscious level, felt was motivating Gregor’s change. In an attempt to save her son, his mother bursts out of his room in an oddly disheveled state. Wearing only a “chemise,” and shedding her undergarments (“petticoats”) as she runs toward Mr. Samsa, she “forced herself onto him” (39). Continuing these allusions to sexuality and continuing to employ euphemisms, Kafka notes that Mrs. Samsa was “embracing him,” and, for the (if you’ll pardon the pun) clincher, he adds that she was “in complete union with him” (39). Obviously Mrs. Samsa is trying to distract her husband using, her . . . er. . . femininity. What’s interesting here is Gregor’s reaction. Trapped in his id state and longing for his mother’s attentions, he cannot bear this symbolic act of sex and his vision fails. Note especially the timing of the punctuation “in complete union with him – but now Gregor’s sight went dim . . . ” (39). The construction of the sentence, with the dash emphasizing the disgust Gregor felt, accentuates the Freudian nature of the encounter.

Gregor’s relationship with Grete also carries with it hints of Freudian sexuality. The very first time we hear her, the narrator notes that she “moaned” and later “whispered” (6). These are odd words to use for a conversation between a sister and brother because they are loaded with sexual connotations. Interestingly the next time incest makes an appearance, it, like the incident with the picture cited earlier, seems connected to his desire to retain his humanity. In the third section, Gregor is drawn to the sound of Grete’s violin playing. Since he had not liked music at all before his change, the narrator wonders (and given the symbiotic relationship between the voice of the narrator and Gregor, it seems Gregor does as well), “Was he an animal, that music could move him so?” (49). His reaction to the music, an allusion to Shakespeare’s line from The Tempest that “music hath charms to sooth the savage beast,” suggests that his metamorphosis is almost complete. Yet just as he did with the picture of the girl noted earlier, at the moment when the animal nature appears to subsume his human nature, his thoughts turn to sexuality and bring him back into his past state. Here, he begins to fantasize – or enter a Freudian dream-state – about locking Grete into his room and protecting her from all others. Then, following the classic fable paradigm of Beauty slowly learning to love the Beast through enforced contact, Gregor dreams of “raising himself up to her shoulder and kissing her on the neck which, ever since she started going out to work, she kept bare” (49). In his mind, she would welcome this – yet the reality of a brother kissing a sister on the neck is somewhat less romantic and more bestial. This desire for contact fits into the pattern of estrangement from and then flight to humanity that Gregor has exhibited throughout the story. It’s also a measure of his alienation from the world: he’s so cut off from others that he can only imagine sex with his sister – or a picture of woman done up in fur.

Of course by this time, any hope of reentering the human world is pointless. His family’s reaction to his change, from the start, has been a strange mixture of disgrace and shame. It seems that their disgrace stems, in part, from a sense of guilt they feel. They’re ashamed of Gregor, yet, at some level, are ashamed of their own role in Gregor’s transformation. It’s interesting that those who did not know Gregor before his transformation – the char woman, the lodgers – are more intrigued than disgusted or horrified at his appearance. Only the family and the office manager, or those who bear a large part of the responsibility for his current state, cannot bear to even look at him. Perhaps instead of vermin, they see a manifestation of their own cruelty.

In particular, Grete’s behavior at the end of the story calls attention to this latent sense of guilt. Late in the story, after the lodgers declare they will move out, she calls Gregor “it” (51). Using the impersonal pronoun “it” means that Grete no longer sees (or more accurately, doesn’t want to admit) Gregor as human. This distancing from Gregor, or setting him apart from humanity, is necessary before she can consign him to his death. Her conscious needs the rationalization – she seems to think “Oh, it’s not really my brother; it’s only a monster” – to assuage her feelings of guilt for giving up on him. That this reference to Gregor as “it” is only a rationalization is made clear a few pages later. Contemplating the corpse of Gregor from his doorway, Grete “never took her eyes off” of him. She says aloud, “Just look how thin he was” (55 italics added). The quick switch back to the personal pronoun suggests the implausibility of her earlier rejection of Gregor as human. Now that he’s dead, her true feelings come out and the guilt over her earlier actions become clear. That long stare she towards his body probably includes a measure of self-reproach for not examining him more closely over the last few months. She registers surprise over his thinness, yet she was the one family member in daily contact with him and had never noticed it earlier.

Yet while she experiences a twinge of guilt, it is short-lived. One of the points Kafka makes here is the fleeting nature of human emotions. As Grete and her mother stand by the window, saddened by the char-woman’s revelation that she’s gotten “rid of the stuff next door” (57), Mr. Samsa watches them for a while, then tells them “Come on now, come over here. Stop brooding over the past. And have a little consideration for me, too” (57). Their quick emotional shift, from grief for a brother and son to cooing over papa, marks the rapidity with which they forget Gregor. Mr. Samsa’s impatience over their grieving also illustrates the Freudian tensions in the family. Gregor’s father cannot bear any attention being given to Gregor at his own expense – even after Gregor’s death. The women’s eagerness to comfort Mr. Samsa – “they obeyed him at once, hurried over to him, fondled him” (57-58) – reestablishes his authority as the alpha male in the family. The scathing irony in this short passage (the father wants “consideration” while Gregor lies in the trash) is Kafka’s way of pointing out the essential animal nature of man: even family ties, deemed sacrosanct by culture, are no match for the survival instinct. Any guilt the Samsa’s feel is quickly forgotten as they luxuriate in their new freedom and weigh their futures with an optimistic air.

Gregor’s death, for the Samsas, amounts to a rebirth. Some critics (see footnotes 63+) see in Gregor’s life and death traces of a Christ motif. His death, in particular, supports such a reading. He dies, in a sense, to save the family, mirroring the Christian ideal of Christ’s sacrifice for all. Dying in March (spring, the month of Easter), Gregor’s death sets the family in motion, reawakening them bodily and mentally. Gregor’s death literally sends them forth: for the first time in the story, we see the Samsas out of the house. While he was alive they are symbolically trapped in their home: throughout the story the weather is gloomy or dark, mimicking their feelings about their own condition. Gregor’s death brings the first mention of light: as he dies he notices that “outside the window everything was beginning to grow light” (54). The car the Samsas enter is “filled with warm sunshine” (58), a symbol of the new and easier life that awaits them. But at what cost? I read this last paragraph as black humor, an ironic passage whose rosy tone is constantly undercut by the knowledge of Gregor’s death. The last line, with its emphasis on sexuality and reproduction, suggests that the Samsas, far from changing their ways, are looking hungrily for a new host to latch on to. I pity Grete’s husband.

If I’ve seemed to have jumped around and offered no specific interpretation of the story, all I can say is “good.” There is something about a work like “The Metamorphosis” that defies a simple exegesis. That, to me, is one of its attractions. I’ve read this book probably twelve times, and with each reading, I discover a new shade of meaning, a line I hadn’t noticed earlier, a different metaphoric approach. As I noted in a previous post, this story seems frighteningly relevant and, oddly enough, real. Let me know if you find other connections to life or other interpretations as well.

Work Cited

Sokel, Walter H. “From Marx to Myth: The Structure and Function  of Self-Alienation in Kafka’s

‘Metamorphosis’.” The Metamorphosis. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House,

1988. 105-116.

Avian Therapy


“Hope is a thing with feathers”
Emily Dickinson


“This bird has flown”
John Lennon

Time to feed it.

Here’s some seed:

Radical Reading


In the course of a Tim Wu interview on the Leonard Lopate Show, Wu (author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads) notes that advertisers don’t want you sitting down and reading a book for three hours because it means you’re “cheating” them of exposure.

Want to be radical?

Want to stick it to “The Man”?

Want to rage against the machine?

Read a book.