The Western Canon
One of Kafka’s most famous works is Die Verwandlung; the story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to discover that he has metamorphosized into an (Ungeziefer), or type of vermin. The story charts his rejection from society and his own family because of what he has become and is mainly about the themes of alienation and isolation. The idea of Judaism is underlying in this novel and although it is never explicitly mentioned, the parallels cannot be ignored.
The text is polysemous and is therefore open to many different interpretations, for example, that Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in the story is the metaphorical Jew and is therefore seen as the outcast in society. However, I have a second theory, which is that Gregor represents Kafka and his reluctance to conform to his own Jewish upbringing, resulting in a sense of exclusion and rejection from his own family.
Looking at the first idea, Gregor can be allegorically interpreted as the Jewish people, and his family and society in general, as the Nazis and their sympathisers, during the period of persecution and intense anti-Semitism which was when Kafka was writing. Also, the fact that Gregor is the only breadwinner in the family could represent the position of Jews in society at that time. The Jews were the ones who controlled the vast majority of the money as they dominated much of the banking system.
Even though Kafka himself didn’t completely conform to the Jewish religion, his writing is very sympathetic towards Jews. He portrays them as unlucky people in society who are persecuted for something that they cannot change, just as Gregor is persecuted for his new appearance. He also shows that it is not what Gregor has turned into that bothers him. He is quite content to carry on as before as he believed that his essential identity remained the same, but it is other peoples attitudes to his new form that begin to change him.
He becomes unhappy and ashamed of himself, even saying that his family would be better off without him, when other people exclude and mistreat him. In the end, it is other people’s cruelty towards him that results in his death, not the fact that he changed into a bug. This directly correlates with the plight of the Jews who had to suffer hardship and pain, not because of who they were on the inside, but because they were different, compared to the anti-Semitics of the time. Gregor’s rejection by his family mirrors the rejection of the Jews by certain societies of that time.
It shows the inability of some humans to look past the physical attributes of a person to the very nature of who they are. Inside, Gregor was still the same person, it was only his outward appearance that had changed, yet to his family this made all the difference. He was shunned, excluded and eventually banished due to his physical appearance. This shows us that in society, appearance is an intense influence on the way in which we were treated and this is the case for Jews, persecuted because of their inability to conform to the Nazis view of a ‘perfect’ Aryan race.
It highlights the fact that a socially acceptable appearance is of utmost importance in society if you want to be accepted, and that many people choose not to look beyond the surface. A further point is that Gregor’s family dehumanise him as the play progresses. They end up referring to him, not as Gregor, or even as he (er) but instead, as it (es). This was the situation with the Nazis. They did not see the Jews as human, but merely as vermin that needed to be crushed or exterminated. The fact that Kafka chose a grotesque bug as Gregor’s new form is also of importance.