This paper concerns Franz Kafka’s novella ‘The Metamorphosis’ and a specific reading of it given by the feminist critic Nina Straus. The paper will begin by summarising Staus’s reading of the text and will then go on to give a critique of it. By doing this paper will show that, while Straus presents a convincing argument for the validity of her reading, she does not manage to overcome her initial statements the Kafka’s text presents an inexhaustible relationship to fixed categories of meaning of interpretation. While this is entirely consistent with her reading, it fails to understand that the tone of the novel contains an element of the absurd which belies an attempt to give it a fixed political reading and which is self-evident in the text, despite Straus’s claims to have uncovered it.
Straus begins her article by pointing to the fact the sheer volume of Kafka interpretation is evidence of the fact that the text itself is inherently resistant to a fixed interpretation. Nonetheless, she then goes on to claim that is possible to take this resistance as in itself supportive of a feminist reading of the text. She writes that; ‘If the mirror of “Metamorphosis” reflects a different image for the feminist, it is because the ambiguities of Kafka’s language affect a tension between culturally sanctioned attitudes toward women and his own explorations of these attitudes” (652). In essence, Straus argues that something within the text of Kafka’s story belies his own intention to construct a text with no fixed feminist reading. It is this space of non-identity between the ambiguities of the text and Kafka’s own experience of women and his writing on the nature of their social role that Straus argues can provide a space for feminist reading. She elaborates this by moving between two consistent points of reference. The first of these is the character of Grete in the novel and the second is biographical information regarding Kafka’s attempts at heterosexual relationships, as documented in his letters to various lovers and finances.
Straus sees that the character of Grete as undergoes a transformation in direct parallel to the character of Gregor. While Gregor, who prior to the opening of the story was the only wage-earner in the house, and therefore the only financial support is receives spends the story sinking steadily into abjection and rejection, Grete transforms from an independent, nondescript female character into one who must adopt her role within a capitalist exchange economy: that of a house-worker and eventually, assuming that the plan which her parents refer at the end of the story goes through, into a wife. Straus writes that this latter process of transformation provides the ground for a critique of patriarchal social relations as they represented in the story.
She comments that such a reading fatally influences how one should understand the final words of the novella and that it belies the supposed hope which the ending of the novella induces. Kafka ends his story with Gregor dying in misery as the result of a tremendously painful rotten apple lodged in his back. The remaining family members take a train journey whereupon Gregor’s parents remark that their daughter, in spite of the suffering which the family has endured ‘had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure’ (128). This state of blooming is described as standing for a ‘confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions’ accentuated by the fact that at the end of their journey Grete ‘sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body’ (128).
Straus writes that this apparent hope is belied the structure of Grete’s transformation into an economically serviceable commodity, much like the one her brother used to be: ‘A feminist reading enables no parable of recovery or resurrection at the story’s end in the service of its interpretation…The ambiguities of Kafka’s language do not suggest that Gregor becomes more spiritual or that Grete gets anywhere as a result of her transformation’ (656). Straus writes later in her article that, after considering both psychoanalytic theory and Kafka’s own biography it is possible to read the story as ‘not merely an oedipal fantasy, but more broadly a fantasy about a man who dies so that a woman may empower herself’ (666). This is the reading which Straus sees as embodied in the text, however it is a reading that she claims is belied by the text’s real ambiguity as the actual reality of the hope which its ending presents.
I largely agree that the ending of ‘Metamorphosis’ does not present any sense of meaningful redemption, however do not see that this necessarily leads to a belying of the text’s intentions. Rather, I would argue that the text itself functions through a mobilisation of absurd and arbitrary actions which contain no broader meaning. It is the suffering of this arbitrariness which leads to Gregor’s downfall and the intense acts of labour that this brings to his family, most notably Grete. The novel is clearly not intended to be a realistic psychological study. It opens with a sentence that describes Gregor’s transformation, however it never gives any attempt to rationalise or qualify this transformation. The line; ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed in to a gigantic insect’ is a seminal use of the absurd and the absurdity of this situation continues through the stories opening passages (75).
Gregor’s interior monologue is almost comically unrealistic when, as he realises that he has become an insect he responds by ruminating on the nature of the ‘exhausting job’ that he has ‘picked up’ (76). This absurdity and lack of psychological realism inflects how the entirety of the novella is read, especially its final focus on Grete’s body. I would argue that the final image presents no hope at all, and that there is no need to disregard this hope in order to present a feminist reading. Rather, it is equally possible to argue that the novel works by moving through arbitrary situations which cannot be reasoned outside of their bizarre singularity. As such, while Straus makes a convincing argument for a feminist reading of the text, I would argue that her reading goes to far in suggesting that the novel could ever be seen to present a redemptive situation in Grete’s transformation. Rather, its truly uncanny aspect lies in just how uncomfortable her transformation is in light of Gregor’s earlier change. There is no need to suggest that the novel should not be read as a possessing a hopeful conclusion. This fact is self-evident and is vital to its structure and overall meaning.
In conclusion, this paper has provided an exegesis of Straus’s reading of ‘Metamorphosis.’ It has claimed that her reading is well developed and consistent with the text, however that it underestimates the absurd ambiguities which are present in the text and, rather than recognizing as inherent to the intention of the novel attempts to construct a reading which is founded on claiming that only a specific reading can observe them. I would argue that this fundamentally misunderstands the uncanny nature of the story and the way in which it derives its timeless power.