One morning, Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself transformed into a beetle. Straddling his former world of mechanical manhood and a new world of magical realism as an oversized and well-armored insect, Franz Kafka’s famously created character Gregor can be a symbol for alienation, the abnormal, neglect, and power dynamics in relationships (depending on who is doing the interpreting.)
In high school, I read Kafka’s short work describing Gregor’s exceedingly strange life as a bug through the lenses of sexuality and alienation. The grinding of the key between his teeth and bodily fluids released as Gregor struggled to unlock his bedroom door became a Freudian message. The inability of Gregor’s innocent sister to look him in the eye was a theme of isolation and neglect.
This time, as I make my way through the text from a foreign country for a class focused on the sociological idea of the “abnormal,” I find my interpretations bouncing through several different corners– tracing a trajectory much like the paths Gregor climbs upon his bedroom ceiling and walls when he is free from the anxious eyes of his parents and housekeeper.
‘Seven o’clock already,’ he said to himself when the alarm clock chimed again, ‘Seven o’clock already and still such a thick fog.’ And for a little while he lay quiet, breathing lightly, as if perhaps expecting such complete repose to restore all things to their real and normal condition (73).
Laying in bed expectantly, worrying about how he will get to work on time and the wrath of his boss as he wishes away his new and inexplicable state as a beetle, Gregor reminds us of the complete control we constantly seek to exercise over our lives. In the first pages of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I found myself preoccupied with the idea of the “daily grind.” Working constantly to make ends meet (and to give himself purpose) work had become who Gregor was. Work gave him meaning, filled his time, and fed his family. We later learn that he planned to use his success in work to give his sister her dream of studying at a musical conservatory. Gregor sacrificed his life to work so that his family might live–his parents and his sister never having to work for themselves. He operated his life with the precisions of the train schedules he followed each morning. His only leisure came in the rare and mathematical art he sat down to after he had consumed his dinner.
The boy thinks about nothing but his work…He’s been [at home] the last eight days and has stayed [in] every single evening. He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables. The only amusement he gets is doing fretwork (76)
Without the capacity to do work, Gregor lost his place in his family and in society–confined to a bedroom where he could only eat, listen, and hide beneath a sheet whenever a human being dared to enter. In a life that depended upon order (as ours all do in some way or another) Gregor was chaos. He was a problem. In the end, his death is the only solution.
Beyond Gregor’s representation of disorder and the discomfort that comes along with it, I found myself wondering about the theme of disability. I began to think of Gregor as a person who suffered a disability preventing him from work in our modern society–mental or physical. I imagined the life changing accidents and genetic mutations that cause people in our real world to be treated in the same ways Gregor is in Kafka’s imaginary one. I thought of neglect, abuse, denial, and burden.
I wondered then too about the difference between seen and unseen handicaps. Before Gregor emerged from his bedchamber and revealed himself as a beetle, his boss spoke crudely about the necessity of business men to push through almost any imposition in order to succeed. Upon hearing Gregor’s parents desperately explain his uncharacteristic failure to show up to work as sickness, the boss replies;
I hope it’s nothing serious. Although on the other hand I must say that we men of business–fortunately or unfortunately–very often simply have to ignore any slight indisposition, since business must be attended to (76).
This statement is a classic example of the highly organized and ruthless corporate world. Time is money, and it is not to be wasted or skipped for illness. Of course, as soon as Gregor reveals himself as an insect, it is clear he cannot work. He is fired on the spot, and left to live the life of an invalid (despite the fact that his mind is still fully functioning.) What might’ve happened if his body remained the same, but his mind was that of the beetle?
I found my mind jumping into the hospital rooms of the elderly and the sick –men and women whose bodies have betrayed them, but their minds are still intact. They are often treated as if they are children. They are tolerated and cared for just as Gregor is by his sister and parents. They are treated systematically because the chaos of their bodies cannot be fully explained. Why is it that they make us uncomfortable?
Another question: Do we need to see disability or abnormality in order to believe it? Is this why it is so shocking for a man who looks like every other white male on a suburban street to walk into a summer camp in Oslo, Norway and begin to methodically shoot teenagers one by one? Is this why the idea of post traumatic stress disorder is so hard to grasp and to “fix?”
Seeing the world through Gregor’s eyes, I found myself thinking of the movie Brothers (see trailer below)–a film about an American soldier who returns home after a year of being brutally imprisoned. He is a completely changed man, though his body is still in tact and his features more or less the same. Like Gregor, his family struggles to match the man they knew with the man they have returned to them. They meet his physical needs, but cannot bring themselves to fully re-connect emotionally. He no longer fits into the order he once did. He is lost. Just as Gregor’s death brought betterment to his family and allowed his young sister to flourish, the family of the mentally broken soldier in this film is portrayed as being much happier when they were led to believe that he had died in the war.
These ideas beg the question: What should we do with those who no longer fit into our system of human classification and understanding?
As Bauman describes in his Introduction to Modernity and Ambivalence titled The Quest for Order, humans fear ambiguity, but are simultaneously defined by it. Speaking to the idea that we have learned to tolerate (but not fully accept) difference, Bauman states:
Intolerance is, therefore, the natural inclination of modern practice. Construction of order sets the limits to incoporation and admission. It calls for the denial of rights, and of the gounds, of everything that cannot be assimilated- for de-legitimation of the other. As long as the urge to put paid to ambivalence guides collective and individual action, intolerance will follow- even if, ashamedly, it hides under the mask of toleration (which often means: You are abominable, but I, being generous, shall let you live).
This concept of “letting live” is personified perfectly in Gregor’s sister–who feeds him daily as if she is a martyr for his cause. She finds it in the goodness of her heart to keep him alive despite his offending presence.
This particular quote from Bauman makes me wonder about the advances in modern culture when it comes to subjects like gay marriage, rights for the disabled, and racism. I want to believe that we have recognized intolerance in these areas and worked to change it. I want to think that I am not judgmental and that I am not merely feigning acceptance as Bauman suggests.
And yet, I admit that being outside of my comfort zone is not pleasant. Even coming to a country where I am able to speak the primary language and my physical characteristics don’t stand out, I feel imbalanced. I made the effort to study abroad in part to experience this imbalance–but I won’t pretend that it is comfortable or easy for me. Do we need to actively expose ourselves to chaos and a world beyond our everyday lists and classifications in order to be full human beings? In order to prevent intolerance masked with false tolerance?
And one final question: Can we accept the character of Gregor without classifying him in some way? Why is it that we aren’t capable of taking him at face value? Is that area too gray?