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Saturday, July 24, 2010

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.


Of possible interest:

Vladimir Nabokov, acted by Christopher Plummer, lectures about The Metamorphosis and reads excerpts. Part I Part II Part III

The complete A Hero's Journey series here

8 comments:

Judy Croome said...

Fantastic analysis of The Metamorphosis. First time I've ever wanted to read Kafka. If the original text has half as much compassion as your post, I'm not surprised it's a classic.
Judy

Sun Singer said...

The transformation into an insect represents what Kabbalists often refer to as the destruction of one's personal temple. It is a road of great courage for both the caregivers and the one being cared for; the spiritual and temporal lessons that come from it are deep and far-reaching.

A Cuban In London said...

You know what? It never occurred to me when I studied 'The Metamophorsis, back in school, to see Samsa as a symbol for disability. The way we were taught it (and this probably says a lot about the whole teaching literature by numbers) was that it was a self-crippling existential trauma. That makes sense. But then, so does your post.

The first point to make is that you used a more accurate translation. The one I was used to had Samsa becoming a beetle. In the German original Samsa becomes an insect. I only found out later on.

Secondly, I was unaware of Kafka's health issues. It makes sense now.

Many thanks for suhc a brilliant post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Keep the connection going! :-)

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Judy: I suspect mine is rather a minority interpretation of the novella, but I hope you still enjoy it.

Malcolm: What an interesting insight into the insect. Thanks!

Cuban: It didn’t make sense to me either until I read about Kafka’s TB.

Thank you all for stopping by and leaving your interesting comments.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is one of my favorite stories; it is also a favorite of my son, who read it in the original German when I was homeschooling him.

BTW, I would like to let you and other followers know that my Blest Atheist blog went down. I replaced it with 100th Lamb (www.emahlou.blogspot.com). I explain why there.

Nevine said...

I remember reading this story for the very first time only two years ago. I, too, was amazed at Kafka's ability to portray this character's new and crippling condition. But I never would have thought it might somehow reflect disability.

I think it's amazing how we all process reading material in a different way, depending on elements of our own environment. That's one of the things that make reading discussions so boisterous and varied. We really can't help but take in everything that comes our way based on our previously established experiences, and we go from there.

Truly an enlightening post, Judy! Thank you for sharing a very interesting and unique perspective.

Nevine

Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, you are absolutely correct about how experience influences the interpretation of a written piece. Theoretically this could mean as many different interpretations as there are readers. In reality, especially considering commercial blockbusters, there must be some common ground.

Anonymous said...

Excellent insight. I was doing a book report on this and for the life of me couldn't figure out how to paint this guy as a hero other than the fact he took care of his family.