Franz Kafka, the great Czech writer and tortured soul, was born on this day in 1883. The shadow of death – or something worse than death – looms in some of Kafka’s best-known stories.
In the long short-story, “The Metamorphosis,” published in 1915, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning from “uneasy dreams” to find himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect, apparently a dung beetle. It may be a joke (Gregor is a traveling salesman), but this is no dream, he realizes. (But then, what dreamer is aware that he is dreaming?)
If it’s real, then Gregor is doomed; but does he sit around and fret about it? No, he sets about learning to navigate his room, and to try and remain as supportive and inoffensive to his family as he’s always been. (Some commentators have seen Gregor as an inverted-Christ figure, who becomes less than human in order to die for his family’s sins – a futile act, as his family goes right on sinning after he dies.)
Gregor’s father flings an apple at him (yes, indeed, you will take on my sins), which injures him and sends him into a slow decline. His family forsakes him. Kafka’s description of Gregor’s death is the greatest such scene in literature outside of “Anna Karenina.”
“’And what now?’ said Gregor to himself, looking round in the darkness…The rotting apple in his back and the inflamed area all around it, all covered with soft dust, already hardly troubled him. He thought of his family with tenderness and love. The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister, if that were possible. In this state of vacant and peaceful meditation he remained until the tower clock struck three in the morning. The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sunk to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath.”
“Samsa” is a cryptogram of “Kafka,” which is a clue to…to what? Kafka was not only family-oppressed, like Gregor, but death-obsessed, throughout his entire adult life. Gregor, however, doesn’t think about death. He thinks about regaining control of his family’s affairs, about reestablishing his footing at work. Finally, he lies down to die placidly, like an animal.
“The meaning of life is that it stops,” Kafka wrote elsewhere. And what about the next one? Kafka settled that question, as well.
“There is hope,” he wrote, “but not for us.”