A Private Metamorphosis: Reflective Essay on Kafka's The Metamorphosis

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The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past.

Franz Kafka writes this in his diary in 1910. He is twenty-seven years old and more than half his life is over. He doesn’t know this, of course, but he has intimations: glimpses forward into the abyss. Suffering as he has his whole life with debilitating migraines, insomnia and crippling self-doubt, he begins the diary after a five month period of being unable to write. I write this very decidedly out of despair over my body and over a future with this body. In the following years, he completes what will become his most famous literary works: The Trial, The Castle, The Metamorphosis.

It is the beginning of something. He braces himself for it. The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. There is a hum of anticipation. A collective tensing of the muscles. An intake of breath. Then, the roaring: a rush of movement, progress.

In 2010, my friend Luke has chosen a monologue from The Metamorphosis for his year twelve drama performance. He chooses it over the old favourites that are trotted out every year – Beckett, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams – on the advice of his drama teacher, Marissa, who says that it will suit him.

I can see why. Luke is a wiry person: bony, tense, fragile. He is always twining his arms together and clasping his hands. Thus contorted, they appear awkward and inhuman, like forelegs. He has golden skin and hair that begins high up on his forehead. His voice is nasal and sarcastic, almost gravelly, as though he’s speaking through a perpetual head cold. He has dark eyes, more pupil than iris, and long sensitive eyelashes.

Luke doesn’t have many friends. He follows me around at lunch time, or waits for me at the school gate in the morning. For some reason, I am always worried that people will think he is in love with me, or that he actually is. This makes me feel both powerful and embarrassed, and – depending on which emotion is stronger – determines whether I am friendly or cruel to him.

He tells me about his monologue as we wait for the school bus. He asks me if I’ve heard of Kafka. I try not to roll my eyes. He is excited about it. Later that night, I see he has posted the famous first line of The Metamorphosis as a status update on Facebook: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Like anyone’s diary, Kafka’s is full of the minutiae of everyday life: interactions with family and friends, descriptions of plays, his dreams, fragments of stories. He details his frustration with writing, his despair, his ailments. His father is cruel; his mother irritates him. Historical detail is notoriously absent. John Sherman, writing on Kafka, suggests that it can be no other way: “A diary is history as solipsism, the minute concerns of the diary’s protagonist the only concerns of the narrative.” Take this entry, for example: 2 August 1914. Germany has declared war on Russia - Swimming in the afternoon.

Luke is keeping a process diary for his drama class. I am too, for my English major work. We are supposed to think of the diary as a way of processing thoughts, like a machine for thinking. We need to display what we have learnt and how our ideas have developed. Our diaries will be marked and read by our examiners. In a way, we must perform ourselves. This makes me sweat. I can’t stand the thought of anyone reading it, of exposing something private without meaning to. I imagine a faceless marker in a long black coat and gloves poring over our handwriting, critical of our childish thoughts. Yet whenever I see Luke writing in his, I have to repress the urge to tear it out of his hands and scour it for any mention of my own name.

Kafka and his friends called The Metamorphosis his Wanzensache (“bug piece”). Yet the original title in German – Die Verwandlung – doesn’t indicate a natural change of state such as a caterpillar into a butterfly. Rather, it suggests a magical transformation like those found in fairy tales: the toad becomes a prince, seven brothers become seven swans.

Rehearsal. I hover in the drama room doorway to watch Luke. Marissa gestures for me to come in with a finger to her lips. The class warms up together before they branch off to rehearse their monologues separately. They collect in the centre of the room in a circle. Marissa walks around them like a puppeteer, quietly murmuring, and they respond by bending their bodies into unusual shapes and forms. Luke, under her direction, shines. Some other force looks out through his eyes. He is freer here, lighter. Layers of effort and pretence fall away, as though he is inhabiting something closer to his true self. Yet even as I watch in admiration, I prickle with jealousy. I am pained, proud. My beautiful friend!

Envy...the feeling of having in the middle of my body a ball of wool that quickly winds itself up, its innumerable threads pulling from the surface of my body to itself.

Kafka died in 1924 in a sanatorium outside Vienna, after suffering tuberculosis for nearly seven years. The condition of his throat made it too painful to eat or drink, sentencing him to a slow death by starvation. His short story The Hunger Artist, about a man whose art form is starvation, was written around this time. Gregor Samsa also eventually wastes away to a husk, barricaded inside his room.

Yet one must be careful of hunting for autobiographical detail in Kafka’s stories. After reading The Metamorphosis aloud to his family, he notes this rebuttal in his diary: My sister said: The house (in the story) is very like ours. I said: How? In that case, Father would have to be living in the toilet.

The year goes on. We march to school and back. We sit in classrooms in orderly rows. They are always asking us: what do we want to do? Who do we want to be? Where do we want to go? The possibilities seem endless and narrow all at once, like an optical illusion of a corridor that shrinks or grows depending which way you look at it. We are unformed, unsure. Uncomfortable in our own skin. These questions make us nervous.

Luke clings to me. If we are standing beside one another, he will lean on me as a dog leans against its master’s legs. I take to avoiding him in the school yard. Once, I even duck into the library and watch as he drifts past the windows, the hurt and need on his face as obvious as that of a young child. I’m both relieved and sickened at myself. I try to write in my diary but toss it aside in disgust.

A famous photograph of Kafka: his sharp elfin face and pointed ears, deep black eyes staring from under beetling brows, one eye slightly off centre. He is wearing a suit and tie. It is said there was something posthumous about him, even in life, although how much of this is filtered by our perception of him – from his stories and his diary – is hard to say.

We are permitted to crack that whip, the will, over us with our own hand.

We study. We study and study and study. I feel I am on a moving walkway separate to my classmates: alone and focused, drawn inexorably forward on a singular path. I haven’t seen Luke for a long time; we have slowly drifted apart.

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One morning, a dark murmur passes through the school. Luke’s name is mentioned in hushed voices. Our teachers look worried. They pull people out of class to ask them questions, but they never call for me. I grab Samantha at lunchtime to find out what’s going on.

“They think he’s run away,” she says.

I am shocked. “To where?”

“He might’ve got the train to Melbourne. To see a guy he met on the internet.”

I scroll through Luke’s Facebook page for hours that night, looking for a clue, a reason. There are cryptic hints: single swear words, snippets of song lyrics. Posts of angst, suffering, loneliness. But who would take it seriously?

A few days later, I see Luke wandering alone through the schoolyard. He is dazed and lost, like he’s been shot from a distance but hasn’t realised yet. I wave to him and he seems glad to see me. He looks bruised, gaunt. “Are you ok?” I ask. He shrugs. The jacaranda blossoms are luminous above us: an uncanny, otherworldly violet. He tells me, with a wry, pained smile, that he has to see the school counsellor to discuss his stress. He twists his hands together.

There is a myth that during the HSC one year a boy threw himself off the top of G Block and fell three storeys to his death. His ghost is supposed to haunt the fire exit stairs at the far corner of the building. I don’t believe in ghosts but I avoid the stairs whenever I can. I try not to think about Luke; about heights, concrete.

Again, I catch hold of myself, as one catches hold of a ball in its fall.

I read The Metamorphosis again and again. The most terrifying part is not the fact that Gregor transforms into a horrific creature, it’s that he slowly comes to accept it. He withdraws from the human world with relief. He loses his voice. Eventually, he disappears even from the story itself, forgotten as his sister blooms into a beautiful young woman. It is suggested that Gregor’s death is the final service he performs for his family.

So deserted by myself, by everything. Noise in the next room.

Exams begin. Our surnames start with the same letter so Luke and I are seated only a few desks apart. We give each other weak smiles of solidarity, terror.

We hand over our diaries, a year’s worth of work. Almost immediately, I want to snatch it back, erase everything.

We are measured, assessed, weighted. Stacked against one another and assigned a ranking like a body count.

Eventually, it is all over.

19 Jan 1914. Great antipathy to ‘Metamorphosis’. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.

There were many times when Kafka wanted to give up the diary and writing, even life altogether. And yet, despite everything, he carried on. Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.

On the night of the final drama performances, the school buildings are dark. It is strange to be in the grounds when it is untenanted, echoing with absence. The drama room is lit up like a lone ship. A crowd mills, our parents and teachers, chatting and laughing. I take my seat and tear the program into small shreds in my lap.

The stage goes dark. A single light illuminates a ladder. Luke emerges from behind it. He crawls forward, twisting his body, knee over elbow. He wears black and half his face is painted gold, a metallic mask. He is grotesque and pitiful and strange. He tilts his chin to the light and his voice is a rasping growl. He hangs from the ladder, drags his body over the floor, cowers at any intrusion. Each time he addresses his sister, I give a start, thinking that he’s calling out to me.

A standing ovation.

I hang back as the crowd leaves the room. People approach Luke, offering congratulations. He is a success. There is gold paint in his hairline, in his eyelashes. He is smiling; his face shining. Transformed.

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A Private Metamorphosis: Reflective Essay on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-private-metamorphosis-reflective-essay-on-kafkas-the-metamorphosis/
“A Private Metamorphosis: Reflective Essay on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/a-private-metamorphosis-reflective-essay-on-kafkas-the-metamorphosis/
A Private Metamorphosis: Reflective Essay on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-private-metamorphosis-reflective-essay-on-kafkas-the-metamorphosis/> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2024].
A Private Metamorphosis: Reflective Essay on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 14 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-private-metamorphosis-reflective-essay-on-kafkas-the-metamorphosis/

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