the metamorphosis and Incarnation

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I just finished reading Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis. I’ve had it on my shelf for some time, but finally read it this weekend. (It doesn’t take long–it’s only about 60 pages long).  Warning: plot summary ahead, so if you haven’t read the novel yet and don’t want it spoiled, I suggest you read it online here first.

The opening line of the story is indicative of Kafka’s idiosyncratic style: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself  changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” From there, there’s not a whole lot more to the story’s plot development or even changes of setting. In fact, the whole story takes place in Gregor’s family’s apartment and consists of nothing more than a painful recounting of how Gregor’s father, mother and younger sister, Grete, have to learn to deal with this “unfortunate” turn of events.

Not surprisingly, initially everyone is shocked and traumatized to see that Gregor has turned into a bug, though there is no investigation of why this happened or any attempt to find out if there is any way to reverse the change. In fact, it’s unsettling to see how fast the family turns from initial shock and revulsion to simply trying to figure out how to carry on as if nothing has happened!

Gregor’s transformation has earth-shattering implications for the family, especially since Gregor is the sole breadwinner. Yet, somehow the family “adapts” to the metamorphis, if you could call their constant “dis-ease” with Gregor’s presence “adapting,” despite all the awkwardness that comes with a big bug son/brother in the next room. They quickly turn to the family savings which Gregor himself has supplied and settle in for the long haul, without any apparent sense of gratitude or awareness that it was Gregor the vermin that had the foresight to set this “rainy day fund” aside in the first place. Much more sadly, though Gregor hopes and dreams for some semblance of a relationship with his sister who at least shows some initial mercy toward him, it is not long before all familial relationship to Gregor is practically severed, not least because of the family’s inability to hear what Gregor is saying, even though he is able to continue speaking and hearing them. Thus, through the remainder of the story, Gregor remains more or less confined to a corner in an increasingly crowded room (they keep moving things that are in their way into his room since he doesn’t need the room anymore anyways) as his family continued to find ways to cope with his presence. Not surprisingly, they increasingly treat him as  a pitiful but grotesque animal, with occasional “sacrifices” of  food left in his room and an occasional quick, but careless, cleaning of his room. The family, it seems, hopes that this is enough to keep things basically “normal.” Otherwise,  life goes on with the rest of the family finding jobs, along with bringing in three boarders to help pay the bills. Ironically, Gregor spends some of his days looking out his bedroom window at the hospital right across the street, yet neither he nor his family seems to think that perhaps they should seek advice or help there for their situation. Indeed, no one seems to have the presence of mind even to ask the question of how this extraordinary thing could have taken place in the first place.

To begin with,  Gregor’s transformation into a big dung beetle is a source of irritation to the other family members. But as the story progresses, his presence more and more becomes a source of bitterness and despair for all involved. Finally, Gregor’s presence becomes catastrophic for the family when one day the three boarders discover Gregor creeping out from his room (the family had managed to keep him hidden from their sight) as he was drawn to the sound of the violin played by his sister. Pandemonium erupts: the boarders threaten legal action and father counter-threatens to throw them out. However, all is settled when, one day, Gregor’s beetle-like body is found by the cleaning lady–dead. Though Gregor had been a loyal son, a hard-working employee, and a loving brother who had supplied all the family needs, his death brings no mourning, but only great relief. It is as it is only by his death that the three, father, mother and Grete, finally are “saved” from their perpetual awkwardness. Upon being discovered dead, Gregor’s father simply proclaims, “Well, now we can thank God!” It is then, and only then, that Mr Samsa summons the courage to fire the troublesome housekeeper, evict the boarders, and find enough energy (he is pictured as sleeping for most of the novel) to take his wife and daughter for a trip into the country side. The novel’s last lines end with Mr and Mrs Samsa marvelling at their young daughter, “communicating almost unconsciously through glances, . . . that it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband. And it was like a confirmation of their dreams and good intentions when at the end of their [trolley] ride their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.” Tragically, it is as if it is only through the final forgetting of the hideous son Gregor that they are finally set free to live life with joy themselves.

As with most Kafka stories, there are numerous lines of interpretation begging to be explored. But I was struck by the parallels between the Gregor’s metamorphosis and the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Of course, there is a clear contrast between the two: in Gregor’s case, the metamorphosis involved a man being transformed into something clearly and wholly other than man, even while retaining his essential humanity,while in the incarnation God is transformed into a man, even while retaining his essence as divine. But beyond these inverted images,  I see a parallel between how the family reacts to Gregor’s metamorphosis and how humanity has historically reacted to the incarnation. Though the extraordinary miracle of God becoming human in Jesus Christ has actually happened, like Gregor’s family, the human family finds such a happening, well, frankly, irritating. (I think of Herod here who hears of the birth of the annointed child and reacts out of fierce irritation).  And in some respects, a good portion of the history of humanity since Christ’s coming  has been a history of trying to “adapt” to this irritating fact of the Incarnation while trying to do everything in our power to resist having to change anything in our comfortable lives. Put another way, though the Incarnation has happened, we humans have tried our best to try not to allow it to disrupt or disturb us too seriously. Perhaps we can pretend it never happened, or simply see it as a bad dream or out-of-date myth. Or perhaps we can respectfully theologize it to the point where its extraordinariness is no longer quite so extraordinary. Like Gregor’s family,  we have “tried our darndest” to go on living as if the Grand Metamorphosis of God becoming man never happened.

Again the contrast between Gregor’s metamorphosis and the Son of God’s incarnation is vitally important because, after all, it is frankly so much easier to deal with man becoming a “a god.” Indeed, this is so easy that we have a tendency to do this over and over again (Cf. Rom 1:25). We’re happy to promote even our peers to godlike status, whether moviestars, sports stars, politicians, or even friends and family.  But for God to become man? This is just so inconvenient for us. For it means that no longer can we keep God locked up neatly in “heaven,”  (cf. the room where Gregor’s family kept him locked up) while we can keep on living our “normal lives” here on earth. Instead, we  have this “irritating” reminder (especially at Christmas time!) that not only has God refused to remain splendidly isolated from us in glory, but that he has come and dwelt among us in flesh (John 1:14). He came as Immanuel (Matt 1:23) and now promises to be with us, even until the end of the age  (Matt 28:20). Yet we continue to live in darkness, even though this great light has dawned upon us.

Where The Metamorphosis ends, however, is not where the Christian story ends. Even though it is only upon Gregor’s death that Grete’s young body can finally be stretched out for the first time in her existence, her “resurrection” must be judged to be a farce; for all that she has gained is what she and her family secretly desired from the start: freedom from the irritating presence of Gregor. How quickly they forgot how much he had supplied for them! How quickly they forget that his payments kept the debtors away! How quickly they forget that it was he who stowed up savings for the future! How quickly they forgot that he was–one with them in blood! But of course, such “forgetful freedom” is no freedom at all, but biblically, the illusory fallen life which is only death and decay. And in many respects, that is what the Fall represents for us–a “forgetful freedom” of  “independence” from God. The Fall represents forgetting God and getting what we want–forgetting that God, from the beginning, walks with us, and getting the fruit of what we want as if God hadn’t supplied our needs from the beginning. And in the depravity of our think, we even begin thinking we are better off without him.

Fortunately, our God has not only metamorphosized into a living man who dies, but is transfigured, transformed, and exalted through his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. And because of this “metamorphosis,” we, too, live in hope of that day when our bodies, though inevitably to become a carcass like Gregor’s, will be “stretched out” anew when our Lord returns.

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4 thoughts on “the metamorphosis and Incarnation

  1. This is a great reading, David. Kafka is really important and relevant for Christians! The Trial is as surreal and gripping a story of nameless guilt and condemnation as you could ask for. I remember, from reading the book in college, how, the morning Gregor wakes up as a bug, the instant he awakes, he’s thinking about his work – what client he’s going to go talk to, and so on. I’ve wondered, in other words, if Gregor isn’t already an insect before he transforms.

    Reading your comments, I wonder if the story isn’t something of a revenge fantasy: look at all I did for you, and you never appreciated it? And yet, there seems to be some self-hatred involved as well; I’ll never forget the final image of his sister stretching, really coming into her own once Gregor is dead.

    By the way, Orson Welles filmed a version of The Trial which is my favorite movie of all time – if you’re interested, we should watch it together.

  2. Thanks, Eric. I love Kafka’s stories. They’re so bizarre, but insightful.

    In past, I have used Kafka’s The Trial alongside Bonhoeffer’s Life Together as a study in ecclesial contrasts for my college ecclesiology class. I ask students to come up with a reading of both these texts side-by-side as it relates to life in the church.

    There are indeed so many themes. I see the “revenge fantasy” element–revenge both for Gregor, and surprisingly, for Grete, his sister, and even for his parents.

    Yes, I’d LOVE to see Orson Welles version of the Trial!

  3. Oh, I remember that story! I’d forgotten the details though. Interesting thoughts on connecting it to faith. Will have to reflect on that more!

  4. Dale Harris

    Interesting, David. If you’re looking for more Kafka/faith/theology overlaps, I’d suggest a short story of his called “In the Penal Colony”– guilt, atonement, Law, society, the bizzare, the haunting and the haunted– all the Kafkaesque struggles are there (this one even has an “Old Director” and a “New Director,” and lots of strange Christ imagery). A little more blunt and far more gruesome than either Metamorphosis or The Trial, but worth the read.

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