Four years ago, I wrote a post which, to my surprise, became one of this blog's most enduringly popular posts. That post had discussed Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Kafka's classic novella The Metamorphosis. In my post, I called Samsa the Voice of Disability.
Because the post kept appearing daily in my Feedjit feed, I finally decided to re-read it. I found the post to be timeless in its demonstration of how literature can be a voice for the voiceless. Kafka's Gregor Samsa had suddenly found himself without a voice. Yet Kafka gave Samsa a voice so clear, the novella The Metamorphosis became a classic in literature.
I am reposting my original entry, which was part of my A Hero's Journey series. Here it is:
A Hero's Journey: Kafka's Gregor Samsa as the Voice of Disability
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams
he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Once again, I use a fictional character to help depict heroism. But a man turned insect, you say? Where is the heroism in that? Before I am accused of trivializing disability, let me share that three generations of disabling illness in my family have sensitized me to the very real challenges faced with severe disability. The Metamorphosis, once past the fantastical element, is one of the best depictions I have ever read about the challenges, consequences, and ultimately the heroism associated with disability, both for the individual sufferer and for his caregiving family.
As I read the story, I kept wondering how Kafka was able to capture so poignantly the dilemma of a disabled person and his family. Indeed, no analysis I have come across has honed in on Gregor Samsa as a symbol of disability. Then I found out that Kafka had suffered from tuberculosis, requiring frequent stays in sanitariums, extended support and caretaking by his family, until he died from complications of the illness. I realized then that Kafka had lived the limitations and ostracism associated with disability, an experience he transmuted into that of a man imprisoned in an insect body.
A brief recap of The Metamorphosis: The secure if unexciting life of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, is completely overturned when he awakes transformed into a gigantic insect. His parents and sister, who have depended on him economically, are also thrown into a turmoil over how to integrate this new reality. Though everyone sees him as a terrifying insect, Gregor inside still feels and thinks like a normal person and is heartbroken when others can’t see that. Eventually, after being shunned and attacked by his family, strangers, and a work colleague, Gregor succumbs to a fatal wound and dies, whereupon his family thrives financially and socially.
The trajectory of Gregor and his family is reprised daily all over the world in families living with disability. Many a disabled former head of household exhibits a similar selfless concern for his family. Gregor internalizes his emotional and physical pain while attempting outwardly to guide his family in their new reality. Many a family starts out with the best intentions only to be overwhelmed by the demands imposed on them. Gregor's family, undergoing its own grief and also burdened with caregiving, initially attempts to act honorably, only to be overcome with impatience and disdain.
Ultimately, though, the tragedy is uniquely Gregor’s. He is the one suffering the limited mobility and inability to speak, the rejection, his diminished status, and his having become a burden to those who loved him. Like so many struck with disability, he carries on with the quiet courage that is his most heroic quality. His trajectory begins with a plaintive “What has happened to me?” and progresses through the classic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It ends sadly with the realization that “The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister.” He dies not long after.
Gregor Samsa’s story, of course, has wider applicability than the compelling one of disability. Vladimir Nabokov has said about this story, “Kafka’s private nightmare was that the central human character belongs to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around him but pathetically and tragically he attempts to struggle out of that world into the world of humans and dies in despair.”
I focus on Gregor Samsa’s life here, though, to highlight the quiet courage and heroism of people whose ordinary lives are made extraordinary by the tragedy of disability. Often, as in Gregor’s case, that tragedy is transmuted into heroism. Sometimes, as in the case of the Samsa family, it manifests as craven rejection and selfishness. Kafka’s genius is that he was able to communicate all this through a story about a man-turned-insect.
The complete A Hero's Journey series here