This was one of my university pieces for the year. I got an HD.
In the 1968 film “The Producers” Zero Mostel’s character Max Bialystock is searching for the worst play. From one he reads the opening line: “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.” He thinks for a moment, then says: “Nah, it’s too good.”
But he was wrong: it wasn’t a giant cockroach. The German word that Kafka uses in his short story “The Metamorphosis” was “ungeziefer”, but this doesn’t translate well into English, meaning “an unclean animal not suited for sacrifice.” Colloquially “ungeziefer” translates to mean “bug”, but this doesn’t have the full effect of disgust that Kafka envisioned. Most Enlgish translations have settled on the word “vermin”, such as Stanley Corngold’s, which is the translation this essay will refer to. (Please note that page numbers for “Metamorphosis” as are it appears in The Norton Critical Edition.)
So what is Gregor?
The cleaning maid who visits Gregor refers to him as a dung beetle (33), but that’s probably a pet name. Kafka would refer to Gregor as an insect, but insisted it wasn’t a cockroach (Binder, 173). Nabokov went further, providing drawings of what design of beetle Gregor becomes, but did finalise his argument simply: “He is merely a big beetle.” (Nabokov, 260)
So what is Gregor?
Following Kafka’s descriptive clues he’s a strange conglomerate. Gregor has a flexible neck, able to move his head quite freely (6), unlike common beetles. He also has, at the beginning of the story anyway, working vocal chords (5), but these disappear in time – afterwards he can only hiss (36). While he has a hard armour plated back (3), his father is still able to lodge an apple into his back’s soft skin (29). His strong mandibles are delicate enough to be able to turn a key in its lock (11). He has antennae (16), and sticky pads on his feet that he uses to climb the walls (23), yet he so large he has immense trouble squeezing through a single open door (15) and his weight requires “two strong persons” (7). He has flanks (15), more a beast-like possession, and nostrils (39) and bulging eyes (18). So while Gregor maintains many beetle-like traits, he is more likely a grotesque mix of insect and human.
So what is Gregor?
Jungian basic principles argue that everything is made up of opposites and that the psyche (the human mind) is motivated by the need to reconcile these opposites, thereby reaching a higher state of consciousness (Lucanio, 15). Jung called this process Individuation. A major aspect of this process is the emergence and recognition of definitive archetypal images. These include: The Shadow (the inferior side of man); The Persona (the outward social façade that is publicly displayed); and the Self (the god-like image that represents individuation) (ibid, 83). Jung said that “The Individuation process brings up the true personality of a person, it makes him an Individual. Individuation generally has a profound healing effect on the person.” (ibid, 14) Has Gregor Samsa reached Individuation?
Gregor has worked as a travelling salesman for the last five years (3), paying off his father’s debt after his business went bust, and gambles that he will need to work another 5 years before the debt is fully paid (4). He has arranged the rental of the Samsa’s apartment (42). He supports the whole family who seem to do nothing but sit at home; at least none of them work. He is the slave to his employer to the extent that the manager of the firm comes to collect him when he is only 15 minutes late (9). Gregor, when he first metamorphoses, frets constantly not about his newfound bug condition but about loosing his job (4). Gregor, the Gregor who exists before the book begins, is Jung’s Shadow – an inferior, riddled with fantasy (sending his sister to college for instance (20)) and resentment to his work colleagues (4). Gregor is, in all sense, treated like a vermin and, as such, metamorphosis into his public Persona – a monstrous vermin. And here, after waking one morning from unsettling dreams, Kafka begins the story.
Gregor is part of an ancient line of storytelling – the shape shifter – the battle between good and evil, or Jungian’s opposites. Consider Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde: a mad scientist releasing his beast. Or Dorian Gray: who keeps his true self locked away in an attic. It’s an inward Victor Frankenstein: creating the monster within. Frankenstein, another mad scientist (there are a lot of mad scientists in the shape shifter genre) was playing God, renewing life to dead flesh. (In the 1931 James Whale film, there is a line blanked out by the sound effect of thunder: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” The line was considered blasphemous, but you can still watch his lips move.)
But the Frankenstein and Jekyl are not alone, especially not in the world of cinema. Metamorphosed giant bugs are everywhere. In Roger Corman’s “The Wasp Woman” (1960) the founder of a large cosmetics company, in an attempt to dispel the aging process, starts injecting herself with an extract developed by a crazed scientist, derived from the royal jelly of the queen wasp. It works, shedding twenty years in a single weekend, but in the process turns her into a giant wasp-headed monster with a taste for blood…
“Invasion of the Bee Girls” (1973) was a sexual romp with a small town’s female population being turned into hives of bees by a female mad scientist. The outer world only realises what’s going on when the menfolk start dieing from sexual exhaustion. (Leonard Maltin rates it 3 out of 4 stars. (Maltin, 680))
1997’s “Mimic” has a scientist (here an entomologist) creating a genetically modified cockroach in an attempt to wipe out another breed of cockroach which carries a child-killing disease. The modified ‘roach breeds and breeds, each cycle growing larger and developing a more human appearance, until it starts feeding on subway passengers of Manhatten.
More recently the 2005 film “Mansquito” has another scientist, by trying to stop a mosquito-carried virus, treat some of the mosquitos with radiation to then have them released into the environment to kill off the rest of the brood. In the process the scientist and a convicted murderer get zapped and transform into, you guessed it, giant blood sucking mosquitos.
All these examples feature evil monsters, but the granddaddy metamorphosis film of all “The Fly” (1958), based on a short story by George Langelaan, portrays the creature as the victim. Here a scientist, during a teleportation experiment, morphs himself with a fly creating a human with a fly’s head and claw (instead of a hand), and a fly with a man’s head. Here the “monster”, while grotesque in form, is shown as maintaining his mind, his psyche (to refer back to Jung) remaining human, yet aware that the fly’s influence is slowly taking over. Langelaan’s story was later refilmed by David Cronenberg in 1986 (Cronenberg talks of reading Kafka regularly in interviews (Rodley, 16; Grant, 12)). Cronenberg’s version plays stronger with this notion of the human remaining. Late in the film Jeff Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle says to Geena Davis:
Seth (Goldblum): You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh…
Ronnie (Davis): I don’t know what you’re trying to say.
Seth: I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.
Ronnie: No. no, Seth…
Seth: I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.
Gregor Samsa was also an insect that dreamt he was a man, but again, after unsettling dreams, the insect awoke.
So what is Gregor?
What’s interesting about Gregor is that, really, as a person, he is nothing. He’s not a scientist like Brundle or Jeckyl, but a boring travelling salesman – a figure of ridicule. A slave to his employer, he is also a slave to his family. Gregor is the one who is made to work while his father, still fit for duty, lazes at home. Kafka emphasises this captured state when he notes Gregor’s father has even declined to pay off the debt faster – he has money stored away (20) – so in the process keeping his son contracted and allowing the family to feed further off Gregor. As such Gregor, bound by duty and with no strength of mind, becomes the one thing he is treated as – vermin – yet while in this state continues to feel sorry for himself. He begins to resent his sister’s attempts to assist him (25). He turns on his only “friend” the cleaning lady (33), he respects his father for keeping money from him (20), he weeps for his family now that they are resolved to work (29). Finally, full of self-pity (his last breath is taken “without his consent” (39)), he dies. Gregor’s Jungian opposites have met to find they are the same: his Shadow, Persona and Self are the one – a monstrous vermin. Jung’s Individuation’s “profound healing effect” is for Gregor to understand his worthlessness.
But Kafka’s metaphor that “people are vermin” stretches further. His own family suckle on him like fleas on a mangy dog. The manager pompously threatens him with neglect of his duty to the firm (9). His room is treated like a storage closet by both the family and the cleaning maid, ever more crowded, ever more filled with dust (33). The three serious gentlemen, indulge in the Samsa’s hospitality, manipulating Mr Samsa’s weak nature to demand their way (34). In “Metamorphosis” each character feeds off the next, with Kafka continuing this notion to the final paragraph. While enjoying their first day in the sun, the parents become aware of Grete’s blossoming maturity and silently comment it will be soon time to find her a husband (42). Is this merely pride in their daughter’s development? No! It’s an opportunity to sponge off their as yet undiscovered son-in-law and to return back to the indulgent life that Gregor had once provided!
So what is Gregor?
The German title for Kafka’s story is “Die Verwandlung”. The word is closer in meaning to “The Transformation” than “Metamorphosis” – it also refers to the changing of scenes in a play – though, as Corngold suggests the title “Metamorphosis” is slightly more elevated in tone (2). Gregor Samsa has been the constant victim of translation; Cynthia Ozick, refers to it “the impossibility of translating Kafka.” She says that there is “always for Kafka, behind [the overt] meaning” another meaning that can never be translated (Ozick, 81). Victoria Poulakis in her online essay on Kafka translations, compares four versions of the opening sentence alone: unsettling dreams / uneasy dreams / troubled dreams / agitated dreams; and gigantic insect / giant bug / enormous bug / monstrous vermin. Minor changes, but elsewhere Kafka’s meaning can be altered. Does Grete demand that “He’s got to go” or “It has to go” when referring to her brother? It is interesting that Kafka edited Grete’s earlier comment “We must get rid of him” to “We must get rid of it” helping to emotionally distance the character Grete from the creature Gregor (Corngold, 55) (This “distancing” can be considered an example of Grete’s metamorphosis considering she was at first willingly tended to his feeding (18)). Likewise, some translations emphasise the budding sexuality of the developing Grete. While Corngold describes her as a “good-looking shapely girl”, Donna Freed has her now a “pretty and voluptuous young woman”. As such, different interpretation can be attributed to the Grete’s metamorphism, with Freed’s translation emphasising Grete’s increased sexual appeal to potential husbands. This interpretation also gives weight to the argument of her parent’s plans to live off the wealth of the future marriage – a more attractive woman will more likely fetch a more affluent catch – and all the better for them (just like vermin) to feed from. The cycle, at least for the Samsa parents, continues.
Zero Mostel (from “The Producers”) later stared in another metamorphosis film “Rhinceros” (1974) based on Ionesco’s absurdist play, where everyone, in an act of conformity, turn into rhinoceroses. While “The Producers” won the Oscar for best screenplay and cemented the film careers of Mostel, Gene Wilder, and Mel Brooks, “Rhinoceros”, also starring Wilder, didn’t do as well. Maltin rates it: BOMB (Maltin, 1145). Perhaps not all metamorphosises metamorphose equally?
Cartmell, D et al (ed). Alien Identities: Exploring Difference in Film and Fiction. Pluto Press, 1999.
Creed, B. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychonanlysis. Routledge, 1993.
Grant, M (ed). The Modern Fantastic – The Films of David Cronenberg. Praeger, 2000.
Kafka, F; trans Corngold, S. The Metamorphosis. Norton Critical Edition, 1996.
Lucanio, P. Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films. Indiana University Press, 1987.
Maltin, L. Leonard Maltin’s 2008 Movie Guide. Plume, 2007
Nabokov, V. Lecture on “Metamorphosis”. Weblink last viewed April 2009: http://victorian.fortunecity.com/vermeer/287/nabokov_s_metamorphosis.htm
Nabokov V. Lectures on Literature. Harvest, 1980.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Impossibility of Being Kafka. The New Yorker, 11 Jan 1999
Poulakis, V. Translation: What Difference Does It Make? Northern Virginia Community College, 2001. Weblink last viewed April 2009: http://www.nvcc.edu/home/vpoulakis/Translation/home.htm
Rodley, C (ed). Cronenberg on Cronenberg. Faber and Faber, 1997.
The Fly (1958). 20th Century Fox. dir K Neumann; wri G Langelaan (story), J Clavell (screen)
The Fly (1986). Brooksfilms. dir D Cronenberg; wri G Langelaan (story), C Edward Pogue & D Cronenberg (screen)
Frankenstein (1931). Universal Pictures. dir J Whale; wri M Shelley (novel), P Webling (play), J L Balderston (adapt), F Edward Faragoh & G Fort (screen)
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). Sequoia Pictures. dir D Sanders; wri N Meyer
Mansquito (2005). Sci Fi Pictures. dir T Takács; wri K Badish, R Cannella, B Davidson, M Hurst
Mimic (1997) Dimension Films. dir G del Toro; D A Wollheim (story), M Robbins & G del Toro (screen)
The Producers (1968). Embassy Pictures. wri & dir M Brooks
Rhinceros (1974), American Film Theatre. dir T O’Horgan; wri E Ionesco (play), J Barry (screen)
The Wasp Woman (1960). Film Group Inc. dir R Corman; wri K Zertuche (story), L Gordon (screen)