Kafka's Metamorphosis
In His Time and In Ours

Warren Breckman
Associate Professor of History
University of Pennsylvania

Penn Reading Project Lecture
September 6, 2000

Figure 1

Kafka's The Metamorphosis strikes me as a particularly well-chosen novel for the Penn Reading Project, and I say this not only because the adult life into which you are entering will inevitably have its kafkaesque moments. Rather, with its exploration of identity, of belonging and exclusion, of tolerance and intolerance, The Metamorphosis raises many questions for people like you, students who are facing a time of transition and transformation. Of course, my hope is that your education at Penn will not transform you into beetles, but into less earth-bound creatures. Nonetheless, the tale of the unfortunate Gregor Samsa can make us think more deeply about our own identity, about the fluidity of what we take to be stable and fixed, and about the perils and miracles of our own metamorphoses.

For each of us, metamorphosis is experienced as a deeply personal event; yet, each of our lives intersects with a broader history. One of the most compelling elements in Kafka's genius is precisely his uncanny ability to translate the highly personal, particular circumstances of his life into works that are universally compelling. Even the barest knowledge of Kafka's life allows us to see the autobiographical elements in his writing: his tormented relationship with his father and emotional distance from his mother; his sense of personal weakness and failure; his much-resented work as a lawyer and bureaucrat in the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute; his anxieties about women, sexuality, and family, particularly the terrifying prospect of becoming a father himself; his conflicted relationship to his Jewish identity; the list could go on. Yet, all of these poignant personal dimensions also belong to history, they come out of a history that is much larger than Kafka himself. As a historian, it is my first reflex to seek understanding by turning to history, and in this lecture, I want to follow that impulse by reflecting historically on some key themes of The Metamorphosis.

The first is the issue of "communication." It will probably have struck you that Gregor's detachment from humanity occurs not only through the initial physical metamorphosis, but also through the loss of communication that follows. When Gregor first tries to respond to his mother's calls, his voice breaks into warbles and chirps; when the Office Manager cruelly provokes him with threats and accusations, Gregor tries to defend himself in a long speech that provokes only this response from the Manager: "That was the voice of an animal." From this moment on, Gregor ceases even to try to speak. The failure of communication drives a wedge between his inner life, which remains essentially "human," and the exterior world of appearances, in which he is now judged to be what he appears to be: an insect. When his mother finally addresses loving words directly to him his response is that of a human being craving affection. But with rare exceptions such as that, his existence and his sense of self as vermin are confirmed by the absence or failure of communication.

One of Kafka's deepest held beliefs was that language is the essence of our being. To be deprived of language is to lose what makes us human. Kafka's obsession with language and communication, or more precisely, with the frequent breakdowns of language was no accident. For Kafka was a Prague writer; more specifically, a Prague Jewish writer, and that meant that Kafka found himself in a linguistic minefield. To understand that claim, we need to take a short detour into the political circumstances of Kafka's world.
Figure 2

Prague is today the capital of the Czech Republic; but in 1912, when Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, Prague was the third largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As this map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire [fig. 2] shows, from its capital in Vienna, the Habsburg Monarchy ruled over a vast territory containing many separate ethnic and linguistic groups.
Figure 3

This second map [fig. 3] clearly shows the ethnic diversity of the Monarchy. We see to the west, the German-speaking region of Austria, really the center of imperial power, in the north, the Czechs and the Polish territories, below that, the Magyars, the ethnic group that comprises the majority of modern-day Hungary, the Ruthenians to the east, and the patchwork of ethnicities in the Balkans in the south. As anyone who has read a newspaper over the last decade knows, the ethnic divisions of the Balkans continue to make this region a flashpoint. However, already by the end of the nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was starting to fall apart. And the force that was pulling it apart was nationalism, the desire of all these separate ethnic and linguistic groups to go their own way, to form their own independent states. After the First World War, many of these groups did indeed form autonomous states.
Figure 4

This map, from 1925 [fig. 4], shows how the Treaty of Versailles divided up the old Empire into separate nation-states more or less coinciding with the distribution of ethnic majorities. But in the years leading up to the War, the Empire had become a kind of cardboard façade hiding the forces of dissolution. Prague was the center of the region dominated by the Czechs, and as Czech nationalism grew, language became a highly charged political issue. For the official language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was German, the mother tongue of Austria; therefore, Czech independence came to hang on a kind of battle for linguistic supremacy on Czech soil. Czech nationalists reasoned that the possibility of a separate Czech state, Czech identity and culture, all depended on the Czech language and the possibility of driving out the German language.

This linguistic nationalism created a profound dilemma for Prague's Jews, for the language of the Jewish community had become German. Prague's Jews conducted business in German, were educated in German, read German literature and attended German theater. In this charged atmosphere, language contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism; for the Czech majority regarded the Jews as "outsiders" in a double sense, first because they were Jews and second because they were "Germans." At the same time, however, Jews could not take comfort from their affiliation with the German language and culture; for anti-Semitism was also on the rise in the German-speaking parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as in Germany itself. Writing in 1897, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, described the situation of Prague's Jews:

"What had they done, the little Jews of Prague, the honest merchants of the middle class, the most peaceful of all peaceful citizens? .... In Prague, people suggested that they weren't Czechs, in [the Bohemian provinces], that they weren't Germans .... What should they hold on to then? If some wanted to be Germans, the Czechs jumped on them - and the Germans too ...."

For the Jewish writer this posed particularly acute problems, for the writer who must inhabit this language could never feel at home in it. Kafka summed up the problem in a letter to his friend Max Brod:

"[Jewish writers] exist among three impossibilities, which I just happen to call linguistic impossibilities.... These are: The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently."

Against this historical background, Gregor Samsa's effort to communicate and his isolation when those efforts fail provides a symbol for the writer forced into the labyrinth of these impossibilities.

The dilemma of language was just one aspect of a larger crisis of Jewish life experienced by Kafka's generation. Born in 1883, Kafka belonged to the first generation of Central European Jews shaped entirely by the experiment of Jewish assimilation into the majority Christian culture. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, the majority of Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lived in the countryside and spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue. They faced many special restrictions: they were not free to choose their place of residence; certain professions and educational paths were closed to them; even the right to marry and have children was narrowly regulated. In the 1850s, following the Revolution of 1848, this situation changed. The Austro-Hungarian government passed legislation removing these restrictions and granting full citizenship rights to the 400,000 Jews living in the Empire at that time. These new conditions, incidentally, help to explain the Jews' loyalty to the German-speaking central government, although it must be added that the government emancipated the Jews not out of conscience, but rather out of the belief that the presence of Jews throughout the Empire would help to stabilize the volatile national groups that had precipitated the Revolution of 1848.

Figure 5

In this changed situation, Franz's father, Hermann Kafka [fig. 5], the Yiddish-speaking son of a kosher butcher, was able to reinvent his life. While still a teenager, he left the shtetl, or small village, of his parents and moved to the big city. He dropped Yiddish and mastered German and Czech. It's worth emphasizing that the Kafkas, including Franz, spoke Czech well and they had closer relations with Czech citizens than did many Prague Jews. The woman Hermann married, Julie Löwy, came from similar circumstances. Together, Hermann and Julie Kafka opened a small luxury goods shop in central Prague that eventually grew into a sizeable business.

Franz was born in 1883 into a typical family of the new Prague Jewish middle-class - business-oriented, German-speaking, and eager to assimilate into Gentile society. The extent of Hermann Kafka's assimilation is indicated by the fact that during an outburst of anti-Semitic violence in the 1890s, gangs of Czech thugs spared his shop from vandalism because they thought he was Czech. Yet, Hermann's personal luck only underscores the precarious situation of the assimilated Jews. By the time Franz Kafka was an adult, he and his friends could judge their parents' experience a failed experiment. The persistence of threats and the occasional outbreak of real violence exposed the failure of assimilation. But the failure appeared also in a certain "hollowness" that Franz's age group detected in their parents' generation, particularly in relation to their religion, which appeared to be empty and based purely on appearances.

Not surprisingly, many of Franz Kafka's closest friends opted for Zionism, which offered them the dream of a Jewish homeland, the revival of Hebrew, and the reinvigoration of spirituality. Franz himself flirted with Zionism, and he idealized the non-assimilated Eastern European Orthodox Jews as members of an authentic Jewish community. Yet ultimately, Kafka the atheist and skeptic could never create or discover his own link to Judaism. Instead, Kafka took his personal sense of separation as a sign of the modern condition per se, and he turned his longing for community into disturbing fables of universal alienation and loss. Most powerfully, he turned his frustration and disillusionment with his father into a universal conflict between fathers and sons that resonates in every page of works like The Metamorphosis. Significantly, that other great modern analyst of fathers and sons, Sigmund Freud, was also the son of a Yiddish-speaking Jew who left the shtetl to win his fortune in the city of Vienna.

As Gregor Samsa's fate suggests, Kafka's rage against the father was matched only by his sense of personal powerlessness to overcome the father's authority, to replace the father, or to become the father. And here, Kafka differed decisively from Freud, because Freud was much more optimistic about the capacity of children to eventually develop a new and mature relationship to their parents. By contrast, Kafka's genius sometimes seems like one big case of arrested development. For Kafka, the parent-child relationship is insurmountable, the authority of the parent crushing, the debt between generations unpayable. Significantly, whatever else The Metamorphosis is about, it is also about debt. The Samsas are in debt; and Gregor, the dutiful son, takes over their debt as his own. But it is a debt that he cannot repay, that chains him, and ultimately contributes to the loss of his humanity. As any speaker of German would know, "Schuld," the German word for "debt," also means "guilt."

Thinking about this, I find myself wondering if the Samsa's debt cannot be paid because the "currency" in which the debt is to be measured has itself collapsed. If the orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe represented for Kafka the model of true belonging, then what separates his condition from theirs was his loss of faith. Thirty years before Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche had proclaimed that "God is dead." Kafka considered that proclamation to be a liberation and a curse, a liberation and a curse. For in the words of another writer whom Kafka greatly admired, the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky, if God does not exist, "then everything is permitted." The dizzying sense of possibility that that realization brought came at the cost of a disorienting sense that all the anchors had been pulled up, that anything could happen, that people had lost their compass. Without question, The Metamorphosis is full of religious resonances: the "conversion" itself, the wrath of the father, the fatal apple, Gregor's "Christ-like" death, "nailed" to the floor by the apple thrown by his father. But what does it all amount to? A vast landscape of failure. Gregor's transformation brings no apparent redemption; the many fragments of higher meaning that come to us as we contemplate his metamorphosis do not add up to a story of either good or evil, redemption or damnation.

Instead, what we have is the fact of his metamorphosis. Kafka does not give us an explanation of how such a change is possible, nor does he explain why this unusual condition has been inflicted on Gregor. But he does present the condition of Gregor's metamorphosis with great naturalistic and realistic detail. I think that Kafka's attention to the details of Gregor's biological metamorphosis provides a clue to another historical force operating on Kafka's imagination, Charles Darwin, whose books The Origin of Species from 1859 and The Descent of Man from 1871 had created a revolution in European thought. By Kafka's time, the idea that all of life was caught up in a dynamic evolutionary process was familiar to virtually anyone who read. Indeed, even the arts were influenced by the notion that all of life was swimming in a kind of organic soup, bound together by some sort of will-to-life. So, at the end of the nineteenth century, we see in the European arts a deep fascination with organic, vegetative forms, a fascination with dynamism in nature and the merging of human and organic life. Consider the following images: in this first picture [fig. 6], we see two book covers from 1900. The cover on the left is particularly interesting. Note the sinuous vegetative forms; but also, observe how the bird's feathers transform seamlessly into the interwoven tangle of the vegetative design, as if to suggest the continuity of one organic life that embraces all living beings. This rchitect's drawing of a doorway [fig. 7] for a pavilion at the 1900 World's Fair illustrates the same point. Once again, we see the pattern taking its inspiration from organic form; there are no hard dges or mechanical shapes here. The next image shows jewelry designed by the great Paris jewelry maker Rene Lalique around 1900. In the first [fig. 8], we see two pieces that show human forms merging into other life forms, in this case, into insects. Finally, this sculpture [fig. 9], again by Lalique, depicts an angel-like female form. Lalique thus evokes a classic Christian image, but once again we see that the angel's wings extend and transform into something more insect-like, evoking either a spider's web or the wings of a butterfly.
Figure 6

Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9

Kafka first encountered Darwin's work when he was a high school student, and he never shook the powerful impression that Darwin made upon him. Yet, even if Kafka remained a lifelong supporter of the theory of evolution, The Metamorphosis challenges the main premises of Darwinism. It challenges Darwinism, most obviously, because Gregor's sudden physical change violates all natural law. But the story runs contrary to Darwinism also because Gregor's transformation into a beetle reverses the assumed path of evolutionary change. It is important here to appreciate that in the late nineteenth century, the theory of evolution had become a source of optimism about the general path of progress: Many held the optimistic belief that species, including Homo Sapiens, almost inevitably evolved toward higher and more perfect forms. We are all familiar with this type of image [fig. 10] depicting human evolution as a neat and tidy linear development toward higher and more perfect forms, and culminating in Homo Sapiens. It must be said here by way of disclaimer that Darwin himself had a much more complicated view of perfectibility and purpose in evolutionary processes; what I am speaking of is the more popular version of Darwinism which developed in the later nineteenth century.
Figure 10

It was Friedrich Nietzsche, again, who suggested that in the absence of God, science had become the new faith of the nineteenth century. Kafka extends Nietzsche's proposition in The Metamorphosis by implying the following question: what if our organic life, our biological existence, is just as arbitrary as our moral being? What if there is no necessity or purpose in organic life? What if evolution were to reverse itself [fig. 11], or if there were no pattern at all? Instead of reassuring us about the orderliness and stability of the natural world, Gregor Samsa seems to be drifting aimlessly in the fluid of an evolutionary life force. Of course, we may assume that Kafka did not believe in the literal possibility of Samsa's transformation. This is, after all, a work of imagination, a kind of thought experiment: but by using this extreme image of evolutionary backsliding, Kafka challenged his era's optimistic faith in progress. And, he still challenges us to think more deeply about the relationship between the animal and the human in ourselves.
Figure 11

Biology plays still another role in The Metamorphosis, with which I would like to conclude. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, biology was considered the key to understanding differences between human groups. Human differences were considered to be in the blood; the difference between, for example, Christians and Jews was no longer measured by religious belief, but by alleged physical "racial" differences.
Figure 12

Guided by such biological ideas, scientists tried to classify the different races according to evolutionary schemes. This image of the so-called "dark races" [fig. 12] is a typical example of such efforts, displaying the diverse "races" like specimens, including the figure of the Jew in the center of the picture. Likewise, Social Darwinists debated which races were fit for the struggle for survival and which were not, which races contributed to progress and which did not. Biological rhetoric also transformed the nature of anti-Semitism. European anti-Semites of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries no longer criticized the Jews because they repudiated Christ, but because they were assumed to be a tainted race, a source of corruption and biological degeneration. This image from the 1890s is a typical piece of anti-Semitic pseudo-science, in which the "healthy" Aryan body is compared to the "weak" Jewish body. Jews themselves were not immune to these anti-Semitic images. After all, Zionists, the champions of Jewish nationalism, criticized the unhealthy Jews of the cities, and they advocated a return to the land and the creation of so-called "muscular Jews." Kafka himself apparently internalized elements of the anti-Semitic rhetoric about the Jew's body. With his long, lanky frame and weak muscles, Kafka suffered from what we might call a poor "body image." His diaries and letters are full of self-criticism about his body: sometimes it is the object of humor, sometimes of loathing.
Figure 13

Fueled by anxieties about his body, Kafka became a sucker for every quack diet scheme, including one from America that prescribed the precise number of chewing motions per minute. He also joined the faddish nudist movement [fig. 13] that many Europeans embraced as an antidote to the moral and physical effects of the city. And for years, Kafka practiced calisthenics before an open window as instructed by the Danish fitness guru, Jens Peter Müller [fig. 14], whose many publications mixed exercise tips with ample doses of racist rhetoric about the perfect Nordic body.
Figure 14

In a culture obsessed by the body, by visible signs of health and decay and the search for biological divisions between human groups, it is not surprising that many of Kafka's stories and novels focus on the body in pain. Alongside Metamorphosis, we might recall "In the Penal Colony" or "The Hunger Artist." Nor is it surprising that Gregor Samsa's conversion is not a matter of morality or belief. Rather, Gregor's "difference" is written literally on the "body." The obvious visible difference of the body marks Gregor as irredeemably "different," as an absolute "other." And to a great extent, we share the shock of Gregor's family as we too confront this frightening creature. However, despite our own repulsion, we are in a privileged position to know that inside Gregor remains "human." In fact, as Gregor's family behaves more and more aggressively toward him, his essential humanity emerges all the stronger by contrast to their inhumanity. Kafka seems to suggest on the one hand that the body assigns us each to our fate. We can't jump out of our skins. Society brands the body with its identifying marks. But on the other hand, the survival of Gregor's essential humanity suggests that the body is a deceptive measure of what separates and unites one individual and another.

This protest against society's attempt to lock us into an identity that denies or obstructs our search for human connection is perhaps one of the only uplifting messages that can be drawn from The Metamorphosis's bleak and tragic vision of the modern condition. I want to end by drawing out a further message. In this lecture, I've tried to relate some of the novel's themes to the historical circumstances in which Kafka lived: the problem of communication and language, the intensity of the conflict between fathers and sons, the collapse of faith and the search for alternative meaning, including the faith in evolutionary progress; and the impact of biologically-based racism on Kafka's imagination. I hope that each of these historical factors has shed some further light on The Metamorphosis; yet, I am deeply aware that no amount of social and historical explanation can exhaust the meaning of this text. Indeed, one of the defining features of Kafka's writing seems to be precisely the inexhaustibility and slipperiness of meaning. As one lifelong student of Kafka wrote:

"The experience of incapacity to understand seems [equivalent] to understanding Kafka...".

If we took this statement as a blurb for The Metamorphosis, it would not sell a lot of books on Amazon.com. However, this scholar's observation points to an enduring value in Kafka's works. For Kafka teaches us to live with complexity, ambiguity, multiple meanings, and unclear answers. Or to put it differently, Kafka invites us to be "readers" in the true sense of that word, readers who do not just passively digest texts, but actively interpret them. He urges us to become participants in an interpretive partnership between reader and writer in which neither the writer nor the reader holds the monopoly on wisdom or truth. That, I hope, is a lesson from Kafka that will prove significant in the years of metamorphosis that now await you.