Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Revealing Kafka Through Gregor: Introducing the Major Depressive Disorder


          Writers often introduce their own life and feelings into their stories because that is what they are most familiar with.  If a writer can better relate to their story then that particular work carries more meaning to them and, in turn, an enthusiasm is created and a masterpiece is most often born.  Some writers put their experiences and feelings into their stories willingly.  Other writers, however, are not even aware that they are putting so much of themselves into what they are writing.  When comparing Franz Kafka to his unfortunate character, Gregor, in “The Metamorphosis” one will find some very close ties between the two.  For example, both have issues with their family, particularly their father, and both have severe depression due to their overwhelming responsibilities and skewed family values.  The causes and symptoms of Kafka and Gregor’s depression define a psychological condition known as the Major Depressive Disorder.
            The Major Depressive Disorder, according to AllPsych Online, is described as having several symptoms including:  feelings of sadness and emptiness, reduced interest in activities, loss of energy, difficulty in performing everyday tasks and suicidal thoughts – all symptoms in which Kafka and Gregor exhibit in some way.  There are also causes to this disorder that fit incredibly well with Kafka and Gregor’s lives, which include:  lack of support system (i.e. family), stress, financial struggles and job problems.  These aspects of the Major Depressive Disorder will be discussed more thoroughly in relation to Kafka and Gregor.  Clues from various sources including “The Metamorphosis” itself (New Criticism) as well as Kafka’s diaries and biography (Biographical Criticism) will help define parallels between Kafka and Gregor and will link these individuals to the Major Depressive Disorder.
            Reading biographical information on Kafka, especially his diary entries, shows that Kafka, himself, struggled greatly with depression that very closely resembles Gregor’s feelings – a connection that should be established first and foremost.  “The Metamorphosis” is an account of how Gregor feels and why, and the story conveniently encompasses his life within nearly forty short pages – or does it?  Could Gregor’s feelings have begun with Kafka’s depression before “The Metamorphosis” was even written?  In Stanley Corngold’s essay, “Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: Metamorphosis of the Metaphor,” he explains early that Kafka’s “letters reveal Kafka’s moods all during the composition of [“The Metamorphosis”] – moods almost entirely negative” (79).  This comment explains that Kafka’s negative feelings were present before and during the creation of “The Metamorphosis,” a clue in itself that alludes to the origin of Gregor’s despair.  Zatonsky states that Kafka is sometimes regarded as a “gloomy misanthrope” whose journals “narrate the causes of Kafka’s tragedy – as an artist and a man … journeys to the sources of his fears and despair.” (“Remarks” 268).  Another key similarity that lies between Kafka and Gregor is Kafka’s relationship between his parents, especially his father.  Marthe Robert states that “The Metamorphosis was a response to Kafka’s violent altercation with his father” (172 – 173).  Milan Kundera elaborates in his essay “Somewhere Behind” that “the famous letter Kafka wrote and never sent to his father demonstrates that it was from the family, from the relationship between the child and the deified parents, that Kafka drew his knowledge of the technique of culpabilization, which became a major theme in his fiction” (27).  Anyone who reads “The Metamorphosis” will see this very same connection between Gregor and his parents; a connection so vivid that only one with experience, such as Kafka, would be able to convey that experience and its true feelings with mere words.        
            To begin with the symptoms of the Major Depressive Disorder, feelings of sadness and emptiness will be compared between Kafka and Gregor.  It is obvious that Gregor experiences sadness due to his transformation as a “monstrous vermin,” which severs all social ties he ever had with his family and work (“Metamorphosis” 3).  This inability to function as a human being would leave anyone feeling empty and useless.  A few letters Kafka wrote to Max Brod give an insight to how the writer feels about himself:  “I am a completely useless person, really, but nothing can be done about it…I am utterly on the downward path, and…I can’t help going to the dogs.  Also, I should love to cut myself, but as that is impossible…I have no pity on myself” (Brod 69-70).  It is apparent that Kafka’s “uselessness” as a person is embodied in Gregor, a shell of a person which both Gregor and Kafka feel they are.  Gregor, too, is on a downward path, but his downward path is much more permanent than Kafka’s which ultimately results in Gregor’s demise.  Another parallel between the writer and his character is that Kafka does not “avoid people in order to live quietly, but rather in order to die quietly” (Diaries 73).  We see this attitude after Gregor’s last confrontation with his family when he crawls back into his secluded room only to die quietly and alone. 
            Another symptom found in both Kafka and Gregor is the difficulty to perform everyday tasks.  From the beginning of “The Metamorphosis” Gregor has difficulty getting out of bed, opening the door to his room and even speaking.  Eventually, “Gregor [spends] the days and nights almost entirely without sleep” (“Metamorphosis 31).  One may argue that Gregor cannot perform these tasks simply because he is a bug, and this argument is legitimate; however, Kafka, who was never an insect, suffered from similar inabilities.  In a letter for Felice Bauer, his fiancĂ©, Kakfa explains, “I was simply too miserable to get out of bed…and [I] shall write down a short story that occurred to me during my misery in bed and oppresses me with inmost intensity” (“Letters and Diaries” 64).  It is all too obvious that “The Metamorphosis” came to Kafka during his misery in bed.  Perhaps Kafka, on the morning of November 17, 1912, felt like the monstrous vermin he created Gregor to be.  Kafka, himself, also suffered from insomnia at “night, when anxiety [did] not let [him] sleep”– yet another characteristic that links Kafka to Gregor (73).  Aside from these incapabilities, Kafka also had problems of being “incapable of writing even one word,” wondering “who will save me?” (Diaries 31).  Though writer’s block is common among writers, it is distressing nonetheless not being able to get one’s thoughts on the page.  This inability to write in no way relieved Kafka’s depression but rather attributed to it.     
            Suicidal thoughts and intentions are the most disturbing symptoms of the Major Depressive Disorder and both Kafka and Gregor exhibit them.  Kafka often made comments such as “there will certainly be no one to blame if I should kill myself” (21).  There was a significant point in Kafka’s life, however, that alarmed his close friend, Max Brod, who received a letter with the following information:

I stood at the window a long time, and pressed my face against the glass, and I more than once felt like frightening the toll collector on the bridge by my fall.  But I felt too firm a hold on myself the whole time for the decision to dash myself to pieces on the pavement to be able to depress me to the necessary level…I had firmly decided to jump from my window without writing a letter of farewell – after all one has the right to be tired just before the end…
                                                                                                                     (Brod 93)

After reading the letter, Max was “gripped by cold horror” and wrote to Kafka’s mother, pointing out “the danger of suicide in which her son stood” (93).  Had Kafka been able to depress himself to the “necessary level” then that letter may have been his last.  That very same window scenario, interestingly enough, can be found within “The Metamorphosis” and provides an infallible link to Kafka’s suicidal tendencies.  Gregor has to remind himself occasionally that “thinking things over calmly…was much better than jumping to desperate decisions [and] at such moments he fixed his eyes as sharply as possible to the window” (“Metamorphosis” 6-7).  The mere fact that Gregor eyes the window so intently while trying not to “jump to desperate decisions” is a more than obvious pun alluding to suicide.  If this testament is not enough then one will find yet another clue in “The Metamorphosis” linking Gregor and the window to Kafka and suicide: Gregor would “lean against the window, evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have from looking out the window” (21).  This evidence is too convenient to be a simple coincidence.  The window Gregor is tempted to jump from just so happens to be the same window he leans against – just as Kafka presses himself against his very own window.  Both Kafka and Gregor are able to think through their suicidal urges, prolonging the agony that their unfortunate states bring to them.
            The final symptoms to be discussed in relation to Kafka and Gregor are reduced interest in activities and loss of energy.  Typically the only things Kafka lost interest in was whatever interfered with his writing, whether it be work, travel, or sleep.  Writing was Kafka’s only release from stress, and he constantly complained about not being able to write due to the lack of time he had after working or travelling.  When Kafka did happen to get a creative burst and begin to write, fatigue would compel him to sleep: “I am going to bed with little enthusiasm.  If only I had the night free and without lifting pen from paper could write right through it till morning!  That would be a lovely night” (“Letters and Diaries” 64).  Eventually, even sleep became a burden to Kafka; however, the only loss of energy he seemed to complain about, ironically, was usually attributed to his insomnia.  None of these complaints are out of the norm, but Gregor, on the other hand, displays more sever symptoms.  As Gregor’s misfortune progresses while living as a vermin he eventually loses interest in eating:  “Only when he accidentally passed the food laid out for him would he take a bite into his mouth just for fun, hold it in for hours, and then mostly spit it out again” (“Metamorphosis” 33).  This sudden loss of appetite is common among those who suffer from depression.  It was around this time that Gregor has also lost interest in cleaning himself and becomes “completely covered in dust… [dragging] around with him on his back and along his sides fluff and hairs and scraps of food” (35).  While crawling amongst the junk in his room, Gregor now becomes “tired to death” and does “not budge […] for hours” (34).  The pleasurable things that Gregor, despite being a vermin, enjoyed doing (eating, crawling, cleaning himself) have eventually become burdens that he no longer cares for.
            The most influential cause of the Major Depressive Disorder in Kafka and Gregor’s case is their lack of support system, such as their family – most notably their fathers who resemble one another in a remarkable way.  From the beginning, Kafka was said to have had a “lonely childhood” whose parents were most often too busy to spend time with him (Brod 9).  Kafka was constantly “overshadowed by the figure of his powerful and extraordinarily imposing father” whom he desperately sought approval from (4-5).  Approval from his father, however, was rarely obtained because fear kept them distanced.  Kafka comments that he was a “nervous child” mainly because his father could “only handle a child in the way [his father] [was] created [himself], with violence, noise, and temper, and in this case moreover [his father] thought this was the most suitable way, because [he] wanted to bring [Kafka] up to be a strong, brave boy” (21).  Violent, noisy and temperamental also describes Gregor’s father who threatens “deadly blow[s],” gives a “hard shove” that causes Gregor to “bleed profusely” and throws an apple that “literally force[s] its way into Gregor’s back,” aiding to the torment that eventually kills him (“Metamorphosis” 15, 29).  Kafka was convinced that he was “a mere nothing to [his father]” and Gregor, without a doubt, feels the same way given his equally, if not worse, harsh treatment (Brod 21).  Another interesting link between the two fathers lies in an armchair.  Kafka claims that “from [his father’s] armchair [his father] ruled the world” and that his “opinion was right, everybody else’s was mad, eccentric, meshuggah, not normal” (22).  In “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor notes that his father often “sit[s] in his bathrobe in the armchair” (28).  It is in the armchair that Gregor’s father also falls asleep in while wearing his uniform – the uniform being a symbol of authority.  
            With so much being said about Kafka and Gregor’s harsh, violent father figures, it is only proper to view the caring roles of women in their lives which will be done from a Feminist perspective.  Although Kafka’s father terrorized him with his presence during childhood, his mother tried balancing the support by caring for and even spoiling him (21).  In response to Max Brod’s letter regarding Kafka’s suicidal tendencies, his mother says, “’I, who would give my heart’s blood for any of my children, to make them all happy, am helpless in this case…but nevertheless I shall do everything in my power to see my son happy’” (94).  This motherly compassion is also found within Gregor’s family.  It is Gregor’s mother who considers him her “unfortunate boy,” believes that “Gregor [will come] back to [them] again,” and “clasp[s] his father’s neck, begg[ing] for Gregor’s life” (“Metamorphosis” 23, 24, 29).  Both of these mothers are willing to do whatever it takes to see their son happy, even if it requires resistance against the dominant father.
            Kafka and Gregor’s sisters also hold an important part in both of their lives.  It was Kafka’s youngest sister (out of three) who “was and remained for Franz one of the most trusted and intimate of humans beings” (Brod 9).  It was Grete, Gregor’s sister, who took the initiative to sustain his life after his transformation into the vermin.  As an effort “to find out [Gregor’s] likes and dislikes, she brought him a wide assortment of things, all spread out on an old newspaper,” revealing that Grete not only cares for her brother’s well being, despite his condition, but also his happiness (“Metamorphosis” 17-18).  Eventually, however, Grete becomes preoccupied with her own life and no longer gives the detailed attention to Gregor like she used to.  Instead, she becomes hasty in doing her chores and soon proclaims that “things can’t go on like this” and that she “won’t pronounce the name of [her] brother in front of this monster” (32, 37).  Grete’s sudden lack of care inevitably attributes to Gregor’s death.  To help better understand this sudden change in disposition, Nina Straus, in her essay “Transforming Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis,’” concludes that “Kafka holds in suspension European, urban, and early twentieth-century masculine attitudes toward women and transforms these attitudes by presenting Grete and mother Samsa in the roles of Gregor’s caretakers and feeders and then revealing their rebellion against these roles” (652).  From a Feminist perspective one will see that Kafka has created a satire on traditional beliefs of women, allowing them to break free of their duties of taking care of men and getting jobs which promotes self-preservation in Grete and mother Samsa.
            The last causes associated with the Major Depressive Disorder include stress, job problems, and financial problems – all of which Kafka and Gregor can also relate to.  Both Kafka and Gregor have an immense amount of stress due to job problems and their financial situations.  Kafka, like Gregor, struggles to please his father by assuming responsibility in the workforce:  “I can do what they want of me, and be the boss of the factory” (Brod 93).  In fact, it is this amount of unwanted responsibility that drove Kafka to contemplate suicide, remarking in his letter to Max Brod, “I had only the alternatives of either…jumping out of the window, or of going every day to the factory” (92).  The “agony the factory costs [Kafka]” parallels those feelings of Gregor’s toward his job as a salesman (90).  Gregor complains that he has “got the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours…no relationships…” and hates the fact that he must endure this torture “for [his] parents’ sake” (“Metamorphosis” 4).  To further Gregor’s contempt for work his boss shows up at his bedroom door to berate him for his unsatisfactory job performance (9).  From a Marxist critic’s perspective one will notice that Kafka views the work world as unjust, that an employer’s best interest is their only interest.  An employee’s misfortune is of no concern to the employer unless it interferes with their business, and even then, despite the misfortune, the employer will not hesitate to scorn those who do not live up to their expectations.  The inability to work and provide money for the family causes Gregor “shame and grief,” adding to the overall depression of his present state (21). 
           With the elements above described in better detail and how they associate with Kafka and Gregor, one can now relate these individuals to the Major Depressive Disorder and the mental suffering they both endured.  Although Kafka once told Gustav Janouch, an acquaintance, that “The Metamorphosis is not a confession, although it is – in a certain sense – an indiscretion,” there is sufficient evidence textually and biographically to argue differently (“Conversations” 75).  After all, it is the controversial theories of Sigmund Freud that argues the inability to be aware of the unconscious.  If this is true then Kafka would, indeed, be unable to realize what he actually created when writing “The Metamorphosis” – a revealing personal statement and invitation into his chaotic and depressing mind presented through the misfortune of poor Gregor.   

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