The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.
Edith Wharton may have written this story as a way to kill her husband or soften the ground to her extrication by divorce: the man dies on a train “journey” from Colorado back to New York–his journey to oblivion, her journey to emancipation. But in a dozen pages Wharton manages to describe with forensic acuity the psychology of physical decline as witnessed by a spouse (with the disease and the decline again a metaphor for the degradation of a marriage), then to turn the story into a mini-thriller: the narrator’s husband dies many hour before reaching New York. Bad enough that she must deal with that, his cold hand. She doesn’t want to be thrown out of the train, as would be the norm. She must come up with endless subterfuges to deceive conductor and fellow-travelers, and does. In New York she must let on or “discover” that he’s dead. She appears to faint and strike her head on his berth, leaving it unclear whether she too has reached the end of the journey or has merely found a convincing way to spare herself accusations that she’d known all along he was dead.
She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.
The lack of privacy, the presumptions of fellow-travelers, the oppressive legalities all add up to an imprisonment for the narrator that has more to do with the unbearable conventions of marriage and a woman’s proper role within it than with the dying or dead man on the train.
No periodical publication. “The Greater Inclination,” 1899