It makes me suspicious when a book’s most frequently quoted line is the very first line. This may mean that a book goes downhill after a glorious opening, or it could mean that the vast majority of readers don’t actually understand the book, and therefore resort to quoting the first line in the hope that it carries all the hidden meaning they failed to comprehend.
I’m also suspicious of books that are deemed “classics.” Twain had a point when he said that classics are books that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. A lot of the classics I encountered in school were tremendously impactful at the time of publication, but in the intervening years, that impact on the reader had waned a little. I have a hard time connecting to classics for two reasons. The first is that the very word ‘classic’ builds up my expectations. This book has remained popular for five centuries? Well then it must be good! The second reason is that I find it hard to connect to stories that spoke to the zeitgeist of the author’s era — an era that I did not live in and experience personally.
That was my attitude going into The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been hearing about this book for years. I’ve heard its first line quoted ad nauseum and several people have explained the premise to me. I picked up a copy of The Metamorphosis because Barnes & Noble Classics are cheap, and even though I struggle with classics, I feel like I should have a few on my bookshelf.
Everything I know about Russia I learned in my Canadian History and Canadian Politics classes. My poli-sci teacher was a bible-thumper that believed, quite literally, in the prophecy of Fatima that said Russia would bring about the anti-Christ. That colored his lessons on Russia a bit. My History teacher was a little fairer to the largest country in the world, but he still made sure his students knew exactly how many Russian civilians were worked to death in factories during WWII. I’m telling you this to put into context just how little I know about the culture and history of the country, and by exposing myself to its literature, I’m a newbie attempting to learn.
During part II of The Metamorphosis I was struck by the similarities between the way Gregor’s family reacts to his transformation and the way some families react to disabling injuries or illnesses. The mother frets, the father rejects, and the young female figure takes up the burden of care.
When other people described The Metamorphosis to me, they tended to focus on alienation as a theme. They were mostly young people, and they sympathized with Gregor’s difference, rejection, and psychological burden. I might have felt the same way if I’d read The Metamorphosis as a teenager, or if I didn’t grow up with a deformed spine, but reading it at this point in my life, my perception automatically gravitated toward the way the social group actively alienates.
If The Metamorphosis was comprised of only parts I and II, it’s likely I would recommend the book to others. Part III was what soured the whole experience for me. Once again I was reminded of the way illness and disability can affect family negatively — the Samsas let their burden become an excuse to dehumanize Gregor and devalue his loss. When I read the last scene I thought, “Are you kidding me? That’s terrible.”
I can see why it’s a classic because its themes are fairly enduring, but I can’t see why people enjoy this book.