Franz Kafka is is largely known for his early 20th century works that have been coined for the literary term Kafkaesque, inspired by a nightmarishly bleak reality with disoriented and confused protagonists who must come to terms with existential questions. Kafka’s most well-known novel is The Metamorphosis, which deals with a narrator in Gregor Samsa who is a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a disgustingly large insect and must deal with how his transformation impacts his family and their economic status.
Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is known for her later 20th century works about gender and identity, religion and fairy tales and the impact words can have on society and politics, including novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and the poem Half-Hanged Mary, which follows a narrator in Mary Webster who is being hung for the alleged crime of being a witch. While both of their most well-known works were written nearly seven decades apart, several similarities and differences can be drawn in their core themes and messages; these comparisons can be made based on the fact that both of the narrators are emotionally isolated and can be differentiated on the grounds that the narrators reach two very different conclusions from their experiences during the plot.
Half-Hanged Mary and The Metamorphosis are similar due to the fact that both of the narrators must face emotional isolation as the plot progresses. In the case of Half-Hanged Mary, Mary Webster must deal with the fact that she has fallen from good graces with the other women who live in her village now that she has been accused of being a witch. “The bonnets come to stare, the dark skirts also, the upturned faces inbetween … you were my friend, you too. I cured your baby, Mrs., and flushed yours out of you, non-wife, to save your life,’ she writes in the third stanza, describing how the same practices that she used to help save these women’s lives (a cure for ailments like warts and being able to help deliver children) are now the practices that have her hanging from a rope for witchcraft (Atwood 2).
On the same note, in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa must deal with not being able to go to his job as a traveling salesman, where he sees new people to interact with every day, due to his transformation and seeing the same faces of disappointment on his family members and the same four walls of a room he doesn’t even feel comfortable in much longer. “Although Gregor could get no news directly, he overheard a great deal from the neighboring rooms, and as soon as he heard voices he would run over to the corresponding door and press his entire body against it,” he describes in the second chapter to depict how Gregor longs to see new people because his family begrudgingly takes care of him and only talks about him in reference to what a huge burden he is. He tries desperately to hear news about the world around him and stay connected with others but cannot communicate this desire because he is a large insect confined to his room (Kafka 33).
Overall, the characters in both stories deal with an alienation with their environment and worry about their circumstances of their existence during the two plots. Half-Hanged Mary and The Metamorphosis are different due to the fact that the two narrators come to very different conclusions about their transformations at the end of the plots of both stories. For example, in Half-Hanged Mary, the narrator feels empowerment at the end of the story due to the fact that the law prohibits her being hung again due to the fact that she is still alive; and while this does confirm the fears of those who strung her up in the tree to begin with, Mary explains that this makes her feel an emancipation from her previous self, proclaiming “Before I was not a witch, but now I am one,” (Atwood 5).
Mary feels that she now has an obligation to use her voice for those who cannot because they were falsely accused of witchcraft and now that she is fully an outcast, surviving on flowers, feces and mice, she sees feels she can do anything she wishes unabridged and unhindered, and ironically the town has created the monster that they wished to destroy by hanging her to begin with. She concludes with the statement that, “Having been hanged for something I never said, I can now say anything I can say … my audience is God, because who the hell else could understand me?” and believes that she now transcends the qualms of the townspeople who tried her for witchcraft (Atwood 6). Meanwhile, in The Metamorphosis, the narrator feels a different sentiment, as after Gregor’s sister Grete turns on him and tells their parents that they have to stop acting like the insect he has transformed into is the same boy who they once loved and cared for, he decides that he must relieve his family of the burden that he has become and he dies as dawn breaks. Grete says that if Gregor could understand the suffering he inflicts upon them due to his transformation, he would have left long ago, and this hits home for him and he reaches a sense of despair that he cannot recover from. “He remembered his family with deep feeling and love. In this business, his own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister’s. He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection,” Kafka describes his protagonist’s final moments of sadness and introspection (Kafka 71).
While in Half-Hanged Mary the narrator’s transformation has led to positive change that sees her accept herself as she truly is and no longer be constrained by the beliefs of those around her, in The Metamorphosis the transformation, while Kafka depicts it as inevitable, comes off as negative and something that leads to the narrator sacrificing himself to save his family’s economic circumstances. In summation, Margaret Atwood’s poem Half-Hanged Mary and Franz Kafa’s novel The Metamorphosis depict two very different time periods between the 1680’s and the era of New England witch trials for women and the late-19th century struggles of Jews in Europe such as Kafka who had to deal with persecution and being seen as a burden to those around them due to their religion. With that being said, there are many similarities that can be drawn between the two mediums, including the emotional isolation and alienation that the narrators experience and their status as oppressed minorities as well as differences that can be seen in the eventual catharsis that the protagonists arrive at and the different circumstances surrounding their persecution that include both gender and religion.