Examine the theme of opening/openings in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Featured Image entitled Metamorphosis of Kafka by James LeGros

Openings to literary texts can be viewed much in the same way as Eagleton describes characters, where ‘literary figures have no pre-history’ (2013: 46).  Before an opening a reader cannot assume that any action whatsoever has transpired in the world of the text before that very moment, simply because they are given no information about it. In a sense what is not written does not exist and therefore the opening will truly ‘spring out of a kind of silence’ (Eagleton, 2013: 8), this idea is no more relevant than in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella ‘Metamorphosis’.

It is in the opening sentence that a time device is used by Kafka to immediately place the reader in the middle of the action and emphasise that the event happening is what is important: ‘When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams […] (Kafka, Hofmann, 2007: 87). By using the adverb ‘when’ at the very beginning of the text the reader is immersed in the event of Gregor’s metamorphosis which is already in motion at the time. The reader is given no reason why this transformation has occurred or how it could even be possible, as far as the reader is aware such an explanation does not exist because, as mentioned earlier, what is not written does not exist. Instead, Kafka uses this technique because by placing the reader immediately in the active moment of Gregor’s post-transformative state the reader has no choice but to take this event as the only true reality available, by avoiding any pre-text explanations the factualness of opening is enforced. As this the only reality that is available to the reader they are made to ‘suspend their disbelief’ whereby an event which would be ordinarily be seen as impossible is made possible and believable; Gregor’s metamorphosis into a cockroach thus becomes a very believable opening as the reader is able to see it in a completely plausible way.

Kafka’s choice in how he structures his opening sentence is also key in persuading the reader to suspend their disbelief of Gregor’s metamorphosis, in the shear matter-of-factness:

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. (Kafka, Hofmann, 2007: 87)

The first clause reads with utter unassumingness, emphasised by the in particularity of ‘one morning’ which could have been any morning of any day, Gregor’s waking at first appears to be entirely uninteresting. After creating this sense of normalcy only then does Kafka follow with the second clause ‘he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach […]’. Written with a sense of humbleness to its own weirdness, this statement of fact is read in just as believable manner as Gregor simply waking in the morning. It is therefore through Kafka’s particular syntactical arrangement of this compound declarative that the reader does not object to Gregor’s transformation as it has the same pertaining normalcy as any other daily function. It is the distinct lack of metaphors in Kafka’s writing, as opposed to information giving declaratives, which add to the reality of Gregor’s situation. He does not wake to find himself similar to a cockroach but instead he has become one, as Sokel states ‘Kafka drops the word “like” and has the metaphor become reality’ (1966: 5). This technique of making the incredible become credible takes away the reader’s interpretation of metaphors and leaves only the facts; making Gregor’s metamorphosis even more disturbing due to its realness. Moreover, this realness in the opening also has an alienating effect on the reader, this being because figurative language is often used by writers as it is quite colloquial and easily creates a vivid image for the specific socio-cultural readership that uses that particular metaphor. Therefore, by having none the colloquial language used by certain readers is ostracized, making the opening strange and alienating.

However, it is noteworthy that Gregor awoke as a cockroach in the morning ‘from troubled dreams’ (Kafka, Hofmann, 2007: 87) while Eagleton argues that a fictional world does not exist before an opening this phrase suggests otherwise. The plural ‘dreams’ by definition suggests that Gregor must have dreamt multiple ‘troubled’ scenarios, this being for a debateable amount of time, before the initial act of waking is inaugurated by the opening time device; therefore in a sense readers are given a small suggestion that there is a pre-text world that existed beforehand. Kafka’s use of the idea of ‘troubled dreams’ possibly suggests that Gregor’s metamorphosis was caused by some element of his unconscious psyche, Freudian dream interpretation having taken off as a movement at the time Kafka was writing in the early twentieth century. Though this is the only hint at pre-text the reader gets, otherwise Eagleton’s stance on the ‘silence’ before a text remains true.

Following this, Kafka’s style of narration enforces the realism that has already been established: ‘raising his head a little, managed to see […] waved feebly before his eyes’ (Kafka, Hofmann, 2007: 87). This particular style of narration is presented in a third-person perspective but with the feature that ‘objects, scenes, and persons are seen by us only through the protagonist’s eyes’ (Sokel, 1966: 9), thus by seeing the entirety of the events in the text from only Gregor’s monopolised narration the reader has no choice but to believe what he is seeing and take it as definitive fact. By having the reader see all the action through Gregor’s eyes as it happens it reinforces the idea that openings have ‘no pre-history’, in this narration Kafka cannot flash-back in order to explain Gregor’s metamorphosis; Gregor’s linear perspective from the time of waking is the only perspective the reader receives. It is also noteworthy that the discourse structure of the opening paragraph ends on the fact that Gregor’s legs ‘waved feebly before his eyes’, by having the action happen physically in front of Gregor’s eyes the reader is placed in that exact position from then on.

Throughout the opening of ‘Metamorphosis’ there is a dichotomy in the language that is used to describe Gregor’s post-transformative state, he is both ‘tough’ and large enough to have an ‘expanse’ while also being described by Kafka as ‘little’, ‘frail’ and as having ‘feebly’ moving legs (Kafka, Hofmann, 2007: 87). The adjectives both contrast and simultaneously present Gregor’s cockroach form as large and strong but also weak and little, the language never giving the reader a clear sense of identity. This lack of identity maybe used by Kafka to make the act of the metamorphosis even more disturbing than it already is in theory, that being that this strange and unexplainable change can result in a person even as an insect becoming unidentifiable; a terrifying concept from a writer whom it is suggestible suffered from a lack of identity himself. It is on this note that Eagleton makes the point that while openings to texts may come from the nowhere of ‘silence’ a reader can gather deeper meaning by coming ‘[…] to them with a frame of cultural reference […]’ (2013: 8). Gregor’s complex and contrasting identity in the opening may stem from Kafka’s own mixed socio-cultural background, as Gray explains:

A Jew, he was cut off from the Germans whose language he spoke. Living in Prague, he counted as a German, and was thus cut off from the Czechs who formed the main population of the country. Physically weak, he felt himself an odd man out in his family of healthy giants […] (1962: 63)

This ‘cultural reference’ could be used to give reasons to Gregor’s dichotomous appearance. Kafka was a man simultaneously living between the three worlds of German, Czech and Judaism of which each alienated the other to some degree and thus Kafka may not have felt a sense of belonging completely to one group. It is this lack of certainty in Kafka’s background that may have been reflected in the uncertainty of Gregor’s appearance. This element of the opening further seeks to alienate the reader as this unclear image of Gregor is difficult to attach to, forcing the reader to remain indifferent towards him.

On a concluding note, it is clear that ‘Metamorphosis’ is a text which is extremely relevant to Eagleton’s theories on openings. Through the techniques that Kafka employs in his writing the text avoids the idea of their being a fictional world before the opening, instead the world is inaugurated by the opening itself. Kafka’s use of language and narration keenly emphasising the importance in the action unfolding in the opening paragraph as opposed to the debateable before the opening; events that can never be truly proved to have transpired in any case.

WORD COUNT: 1439

References

Eagleton, T (2013) How To Read Literture. London: Yale University Press.

Freud, S. Crick, J. (1999) The Interpretation of Dreams. St Ives: Oxford World’s Classics.

Gray, R. (1963) ‘Kafka the Writer‘ in Kafka a Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Ronald Gray. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Kafka, F. Hofmann, M. (1915/2007) Metamorphosis & Other Stories. St Ives: Penguin Classics.

Sokel, W. (1966) Franz Kafka, Essays On Modern Writers. New York: Columbia University Press.

 

 

 

 

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