It’s A Bug’s Life

“The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka is one of those books which, to paraphrase Louis Menand, is like a coin, rubbed smooth by circulation; its essence, diluted and erased by its overuse in pop culture.

A literary meme that it is, its cover has been reimagined; it’s been distilled into a three-panel comic strip; rendered as a clever cartoon in The New Yorker; made into a Google Doodle.

The story, retold in a three-panel comic strip.
The story, retold in a three-panel comic strip.
Google pays homage to Franz Kafka, by making a doodle of "The Metamorphosis."
Google pays homage to Franz Kafka, by making a doodle of “The Metamorphosis.”
A cartoon from the July 28, 2014 issue of "The New Yorker."
A cartoon from the July 28, 2014 issue of “The New Yorker.”

Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Samsa in Love,” is a sequel, of sorts, and opens with the sentence: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.”

The editorial illustration that accompanied Haruki Murakami's "Samsa in Love" in the October 28, 2013, issue of "The New Yorker."
The editorial illustration that accompanied Haruki Murakami’s “Samsa in Love” in the October 28, 2013, issue of “The New Yorker.”

One reason why the novel is immensely popular, I believe, is that it comes across as a very simple, but absurd, comical tale. The book doesn’t have any risible scenes though.

A movie like “A Bug’s Life” (1998) leaves you with a cheerful feeling that bugs are carefree, chattering critters, happy where they are. They could be up against mean grasshoppers, but still, they’re in their own turf, in their own forms, engaging in skirmishes with others of their own kind.

“The Metamorphosis,” as the biography of a bug, whose life is short and brutish, filled with moments of anguish, helplessness, and cruelty, is a perfect foil to the lively animation.

But Kafka, unlike Pixar, isn’t anthropomorphizing a bug. His slender volume, published in December, 1915, isn’t an exaltation or elevation of the members of the arthropod clan. Instead, he makes the case that it’s when a human is irredeemably debased that he turns into an insect.

The story begins on a dull, rainy morning. A middle-class travelling salesman wakes up to discover that he’s changed into a human-size bug.

In an essay in The New Yorker, adapted from the afterword to a new translation, Susan Bernofsky writes:

The story’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is the quintessential Kafka anti-hero. He has worked himself to the point of utter exhaustion to pay off his parents’ debts, and his grotesque metamorphosis is the physical manifestation of his abasement.

But precisely what he metamorphoses into isn’t indicated in the original work.

In Kafka’s correspondence with his publisher, he was adamant that the “insect” (insekt) not be depicted on the jacket of the book. And although he and his friends [chose] the word “bug” (wanze), when referring casually to the story, the language that appears in the novella itself, is carefully chosen to avoid specificity.

At any rate, Samsa’s new physical form is a metaphor for his servitude.

Gregor’s new physical state appears as a representation of his long-standing spiritual abjectness.

Like other of Kafka’s doomed protagonists, he errs by failing to act, instead, allowing himself to be acted upon. Gregor Samsa, a giant bug, is a cartoon of the subaltern, a human being turned inside out. He has traded in his spine for an exoskeleton, but even this armor-like shell (“carapace” and “armor” are the same word in German, panzer) is no defense, once his suddenly powerful father starts pelting him with apples—an ironically biblical choice of weapon.

Gregor’s death is the final service he performs for the benefit of his family.



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