The close reading of the first page of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis offers examples of literary devices of symbolism, contrast, and irony in a third person narration, told through Gregor, the protagonist’s point of view, that enhances the thesis style assertion in the first line, which I believe points to the alienation of the weak in society, whether that be an animal, the mentally ill, the physically disabled or the aged.
“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.”1
The language of the opening line is efficient with no loose, nor periodic sentences, and no verbose descriptions. This easy to read language had me skipping across words and pages quickly in a fast moving quest to find out what made Gregor change into an insect, yet this change is never explained. Thus without an explanation, I imagine Gregor’s transformation into a cockroach portrays him as a helpless victim of circumstance, amplifying the idea that he is weak and of no use to anyone.
Gregor does not express any surprise when he finds himself physically altered, as seen in the matter of fact question he asks himself,
“What’s the matter with me?”2
The words are calm. There is no shock, no agitation. The first line could be reflective of a fairy tale beginning, yet nowhere else in the novella does anything surreal occur, which is foreshadowed by such a bland thought. As mentioned, the transformation, for me, is a symbol for the weak in society, and this flat language is used to bring the sensational metamorphosis back to a sense of the ordinary, confirming that there is no fairy tale here.
The lack of surprise expressed in Gregor’s thoughts suggests Gregor was already in a disaffected state and he has just substituted one different body for another less agreeable one. The use of the oxymoron, ‘troubled dreams’3 confirms to me that Gregor’s life was an alienated, unhappy one, prior to his awakening as a cockroach. His dreams were troubled because of the worries and alienation he was previously suffering, yet I was enticed to read on in the hope that Gregor would be able to shed this miserable state.
“He lay on his tough, armoured back, and, raising his head a little, managed to see – sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments – the expanse of his arched, brown belly…”4
The second line offers one of the few detailed descriptions in the novella and shows the contrast and symbolism via Gregor’s “tough back”5 juxtaposed
against “his pathetic frail legs.”6 ‘Pathetic’ is more a judgement than description and I believe it’s a symbol for Gregor’s family who are pathetic in their dependence upon Gregor, the backbone of the family, who sweats it out daily in his job as a travelling salesman.
The second paragraph offers another contrasting image with Gregor’s horizontal position abutted against the lady in the fur hat who sits “bolt upright.”7 The adjective and onomatopoeic “bolt” makes this image jump off the page and directs my attention to the fact that this is a meaningful image. The importance for me is in the number of sexual symbols, all which create a picture of an emasculated and weak Gregor: Gregor looking down at his body now devoid of sexual organs; the use of “heavy fur muff” as a symbol for the fur lady’s womanhood; the use of “thrust” with its connotation for sexual action which Gregor is now unable to complete; and the positions mirroring intercourse – Gregor on his back being dominated by the lady sitting upright. This sexual imagery confirms Gregor’s alienation in that he’s not only been castrated in body but this is a representation of his castration from power in the family as he is no longer a wage earner, and a symbol of the cutting off of his communication, both with his family, and with the reader, which is also done through the dominance of the narrator’s voice over Gregor’s voice.
The narrator dominates the first page, and Gregor’s thoughts, with a dead-pan tone. The interior focalisation of Gregor Samsa via the third person is shown in the line,
“What’s the matter with me?” he thought.8
First person is not used because Gregor, as a weak cockroach, an insect which could be said to be representative of the underlings of society, is considered not fit to have his own voice and in fact he loses his ability to physically communicate which substantiates the alienation assertion in the first line. The domination of the narrator and the unimpassioned thoughts expressed by Gregor and the narrator, distance me from the character and hence I lack empathy for Gregor’s state especially as he, himself, does not seem overly worried about it.
More than one symbolic interpretation is offered via the lady in fur. She is also a symbol for wealth and she also conveys irony. The “heavy fur muff”9 shows her to be rich, with the irony being that she appears on a cheap magazine page that is housed in a hand-made frame. This adds to the pathos of Gregor as a cockroach. Symbolism and irony continue in this paragraph with Gregor gazing towards the window which is symbolic of freedom but with the irony that Gregor as a cockroach will only ever look out of the window but never escape through it to the outside world.
Pathetic fallacy in the form of weather serves to emphasize Gregor’s emotional state here and throughout the novella. On the first page our glimpse into the outside world shows “drab weather” which is reflected in Gregor’s feeling quite melancholy. The use of this literary device has a cathartic effect on me.
The internal description of the room as we have seen, includes the window and the picture, and is summed up as a “normal human room,”10 which for me, emphasises the departure of Gregor as a normal human, and raises the question: is Gregor’s distance from humanity always apparent or is it purely the transformation that has created the distance? As stated, the image of “troubled dreams,”11 and the victim label says to me that Gregor has always suffered distance from humanity.
The third and final paragraph on the first page returns to internal focalisation when Gregor asks himself,
“What if I went back to sleep for a while, and forgot about all this nonsense?”12
The syntax, here and throughout, is simple and non-emotive. These words give more insight into Gregor’s bland character. I find his thought bland, his words bland and his purpose bland.
“However vigorously he flung himself to the right, he kept rocking on to his back.”13
The words ‘vigorously’, ‘flung’ and ‘rocking’ are all strong movement words and conjure up a comic image, for me, of Gregor as he rolls back and forth on his back trying to get comfortable. Gregor is preoccupied with getting onto his right side, yet ironically he does not dwell on the larger, more obvious problem of being an insect.
Thus, Gregor is marked as a victim and one who is weak as seen by his arbitrary transformation into what is considered a low lifeform. The literary devices of symbolism, contrast, irony and the dominant third person narration from Gregor’s point of view create distance for me from both the narrator and the protagonist, and enhance the alienation of the plight of the character akin to that of a car accident: as I drive past I’ll slow down and have a look and feel a twinge of sympathy for the victim but not enough to shed a tear.