Thursday, 23 August 2001

Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis and Other Stories (1916-1931)

Translation: Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933, 1949
Edition: Penguin, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 919

Kafka's most famous short story is one of the peaks of twentieth century fiction; in this collection, it is accompanied by others which explore related themes and were chosen as his best.

Metamorphosis itself is about the reaction of Gregor Samsa's family when he turns into a giant insect overnight; this is an allegory about how invalids are perceived and treated by those around them. The title is obviously a reference to Ovid's famous stories of the transformations of mortals and gods into animals and plants from Greek myth. The sick are no longer human; that is the point.

Investigations of a Dog and The Burrow continue the theme of illuminating human behaviour by reference to animals. The first consists of the thoughts of a dog philosopher speculating about the origin of the food which mysteriously appears when certain rituals are performed, and has clear theological overtones, while the latter is a study in paranoia.

Two of the remaining three stories are about bestial humans, antlike crowds in The Great Wall of China and inhuman torturers in The Penal Settlement. Thus the general theme of the stories (including the remaining one, The Giant Mole) is that people tend not to consistently live up to their best, perhaps a self-evident truism, but not one which a lot of literature would support; Kafka's writing is a counter to the heroic tradition.

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