Csaba Onder, PhD, Dr. habil. is college professor at Eszterhazy Karoly University, Eger, Hungary. His research includes classical Hungarian literature, Hungarian language reform at the turn of the 18th and 19th century and in the first third of the 19th century, as well as Ferenc Kölcsey’s linguistic work. Email:
Abstract: The text depicting the world with the tools of absurd generated unpredictable amount of interpretation since its genesis. From the metaphoric, metaphysical, or psychologizing approaches emerges the close reading of the American writer, amateur entomologist, Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov convincingly demolishes the ingrained prejudices apropos of the famous first sentence of the short story, that the metamorphosed Gregor, as a beetle, can not be considered as a monstrous verminous bug. The essay gives further consideration to the remark from Nabokov, regarding to the doors, inspired to draw the Samsa-flat. The layout of the flat can be attempted by the stable doors, being always in the same place. The premises of the house are being arranged around the three doors opening from Gregor’s room (like the segments of the bug), which exact drawing is however not possible, because the walls and the interiors of the flat are malleable, synchronous to the metamorphosis of Gregor, they move together with the transformation of the family’s relation-system. The deconstruing space in the text conjures the labyrinths hiding monsters, capturing the characters together with the reader into the trap of imagination.
Keywords: Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, labyrinth, the Samsa flat
In reading, one should notice and fondle details.
(Nabokov 1980, “Good Readers and Good Writers.”
Another motto could also be this:
“the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary,
and some artistic sense […] Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:
one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader,
an active and creative reader is a rereader.”)
“He is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle.” (Nabokov 1980, “Franz Kafka [1883–1924]: ‘The Metamorphosis’ ”). This is how Vladimir Nabokov, the world-famous emigrant Russian writer summarises his observations at one of his American lectures, and, with a knowing smile, he scrutinizes his students who are ardently copying his sketch of a beetle on the blackboard, more precisely, the organism that Gregor Samsa found himself transformed into on that particular morning. “I must add,” he remarks, while trying to wipe the chalk powder off his hand, “that neither Gregor nor Kafka saw that beetle any too clearly.”
Nabokov earned his living from giving university lectures at Wellesley College, Cambridge, Massachusetts on Russian language and literature and meanwhile he was studying the structure of lepidoptera genitalia as an entomologist of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Students attended his English-language lectures on Kafka and his “The Metamorphosis” already at Cornell in his course entitled “The masters of European literature” (See Nabokov 1980, “Introduction by John Updike”. About these years and Nabokov’s lectures on literature see: Shapiro, 2003; Dhooge–Pieters, 2017). Nabokov, as his students later recalled, had a profound sense of irony and during his lectures on Kafka, he continuously encouraged his students to “notice and fondle details” (Ross Wetzsteon’s reminiscences, see Nabokov 1980, “Introduction by John Updike”). As he puts it at the beginning of his essay, “If Kafka’s ’The Metamorphosis’ strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.” Starting from this assumption, he sets out to examine the correspondences between fantasy and reality, and to construct Gregor Samsa’s body:
Now what exactly is the ‘vermin’ into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of ‘jointed leggers’ (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. If the ‘numerous little legs’ mentioned in the beginning mean more than six legs, then Gregor would not be an insect from a zoological point of view. But I suggest that a man awakening on his back and finding he has as many as six legs vibrating in the air might feel that six was sufficient to be called numerous. We shall therefore assume that Gregor has six legs, that he is an insect.
Next question: what insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.) Further, he has strong mandibles. He uses these organs to turn the key in a lock while standing erect on his hind legs, on his third pair of legs (a strong little pair), and this gives us the length of his body, which is about three feet long. In the course of the story he gets gradually accustomed to using his new appendages – his feet, his feelers. This brown, convex, dog-sized beetle is very broad. I should imagine him to look like this: (Nabokov 1980, “Franz Kafka [1883–1924]: ‘The Metamorphosis’ ”)
Well, what does then the image of the beetle on the blackboard, as Nabokov visualises it, teach us? Obviously, first of all, that “If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.” (Nabokov 1980, “Good Readers and Good Writers”). The emergence of the rather overloaded, chiefly metaphysical-metaphorical or psychological-biographical, generalizing interpretations of “The Metamorphosis” are due to the unquestionable absurdity of the beginning of the story. Because of the absurdity of Gregor’s body, showing both entomological and anthropological features, it cannot become the object of authentic and detailed scrutiny. Kafka “fervently objected” to the representation of absurdity, that is, the showing or drawing the body itself: in response to the cover plan of Kurt Wolff’s publishing house, he refused “to allow the cover designer to try to represent the metamorphosed protagonist in any way in its entirety” (Györffy 1987, 143; Kafka 2011, 114-116). It is not accidental that the visual representation of Gregor’s transformed body was subject to prohibition. It is no coincidence either that the text of the story provides innumerable details as to Gregor’s metamorphosed body. As the Hungarian translator puts it, “these details, leaving a deep impression, do not eventually organise themselves into a whole, and the minor contradictions blur even the fuzzy sensation created by the work” (Györffy 1987, 143). It might seem the contradictions hidden in the details inspire the readers’ imagination to perform continuous, unsettling, self-questioning and adaptive work regarding Gregor Samsa’s body and its visualisation. In this case, the details do not help reconstruction, the contradictory details do not point out the contingency of narration, but rather serve to produce the image of the appropriate “vermin.” The aversive human fantasy here has countless possibilities. Kafka, ultimately, did not want Samsa’s body to have a visible form for the reader, which could have laid the trap of ready-made generalisations. That is probably why he gives ample space for the readers’ disgust and fantasy work with the “minor” inconsistencies of the text. Nabokov’s drawing of Gregor Samsa’s body on the blackboard of the lecture hall, therefore, cannot be exact, but rather demonstrative and provocative in its aim. He would have liked to educate his students into good readers and prove, as an entomologist, that the protagonist’s body was far from that of a “gigantic insect” (Kafka 1971, 89. See “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt;” Kafka 1990, 82; literally “a monstrous vermin”) as his relatives regarded him or the way readers might imagine him. Gregor’s transformed insect body can indeed be concretised, though representation is still impossible. “I should imagine him to look like this,” Nabokov says and his slightly exaggerating remark (“neither Gregor nor Kafka saw that beetle any too clearly”), ultimately, proves to be true. Gregor could not see this body precisely, mainly due to his altered vision, Kafka, on the other hand, did not let either his designer or his narrator see him so that nobody could do the same.
Before drawing conclusions about the possibilities of liberating reader imagination and asking our questions about Gregor embodied in metaphysical and psychological interpretations, I would like to finish the story in a different way. In his lecture about Kafka, Nabokov must have touched upon the question of the arrangement of rooms in the Samsa household, just as he devotes several passages to the role of doors, their opening and closing in “The Metamorphosis,” a motif that penetrates the whole narrative. In spite of this, we do not get to know why exactly doors are important in this story. Nabokov draws a sketch of the beetle on the blackboard, as he imagines it, then, with a cunning smile, he asks the students to try to envision the arrangement of rooms at the Samsa’s and give an answer to the central theme of the opening and closing of doors. Nabokov with this homework assignment or clue, not lacking a sense of self-irony, is obviously being provocative. The minute details of his lectures (and novels) mean a serious hermeneutic challenge for the work of readers. There are no accidental details even in his lecture. Re-reading Kafka’s text only with this intention of the lecture does it become obvious that for the entomologist Nabokov, the flat, the room, in which Gregor and his family lived, had proved to be just as important and meaningful as the insect body of Samsa. And when trying to reconstruct the insect-like layout of the flat, he was dissatisfied with the outcome.
“This apartment, a flat in an apartment house, in Charlotte Street to be exact, is divided into segments as he will be divided himself.” (Nabokov 1980, “Franz Kafka (1883–1924): ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915)”. – What is the meaning of: as he will be?) Nabokov summarises the main themes of the story in three points: in explaining the central significance of number three; the theme of opening and closing of doors that runs through the whole story (which he does not fully explicate); and the permanently commented ups and downs of Gregor and the Samsa family. He analyses the three-part story also in three sections, dividing the main parts into scenes or segments. It seems that Gregor’s segmented body, comprising of the entomological trinity of head – thorax – abdomen, is also the basis of Nabokov’s understanding of the flat’s layout. However, he can not draw it this way. Nabokov’s layot of the Samsa flat does not refer to triple segments. (See this layout sketch in the first edition in 1980 of his lectures in Nabokov 1980; this edition includes reproductions of Nabokov’s marked up opening page from his teaching copy, his sketch of the layout of the Samsa flat, two drawings of a beetle, and his notes on the triad theme). It seems that the apartment is at least as opposed to the representation as Gregor’s beetle body.
Nabokov’s interpretation is unique in the literature on Kafka. As one of his critics writes:
Equally helpful are Nabokov’s illustrations of rooms and doors and his comments about where the family members are situated at varius times. Throught Gregor’s perspective, readers find out how the physical appearances of the family members change and what spaces they occupy in he apartment […]. To ascertain the family’s reactions to Gregor, the readers must activate their own visualizing capacities to a far greater degree. Nabakov, to my knowledge, is the only person who has emphasized that Gregor is always in a different spot when family member see him. (Sinka 2008, 149–150)
In the following, as an obedient and good reader, I would like to ask the questions inspired by Nabokov: What sort of flat is this? What do the doors show?
After this lecture that keeps touching upon the motif of doors but does not elaborate on them and entrusts the readers to determine their function, it would be most unfortunate to take a critical stance based on metaphysics or psychology and work on the metaphorical theme of isolation and openness, because in this case, we are not going to pay attention to the flat or the doors as they are, but what they generally mean for us. So what interests us now is exactly Gregor’s room, the flat of the Samsa family, the space in which they live and the way Gregor moves in this space.
Gregor’s body is indeed segmented, and the three main parts, like the three main segments are obvious. But let us not forget, as Nabokov himself points it out, that neither Gregor nor Kafka (as a narrator and, consequently, the reader neither) can see the insect precisely. One way of limiting the vision, as has already been mentioned, is the disproportionate size of the beetle, given the points of reference provided by the objects in the flat and the uncovering of the contradictions arising from this comparison. The altering, hardly fixable characteristics of the insect body concern both the body and the flat as well. (This may refer to Nabokov’s “as he will be.”) What happens if Gregor Samsa’s flat corresponds to the altered body of his?
Let us attempt to draw the layout of the Samsa flat on the basis of the text. There is three of everything in Kafka’s story. One of the first signs of this, which later gains significance, is the three doors in Gregor’s room. “His room, a regular human bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls.” (Kafka 1971, 89.) Lying on his back, Gregor looks around in this familiar space, where there is a table, a picture above it, a window, a nightstand and a bed. Gregor’s mother knocks at the door “behind the head of his bed” (Kafka 1971, 91), and not much later, his father is knocking “at one of the side doors” (Kafka 1971, 92). “At the other side door” his sister is getting anxious, and he “answered them both at once: ‘I’m just ready’” (Kafka 1971, 92). Before drawing a sketch of Gregor’s room, let us have a look at the other parts of the flat.
Gregor’s room is surrounded by three other ones and each room has a door. The three family members are speaking to him through three different doors, from three different directions. The head of his bed is at the door communicating with the living room, where his mother was knocking, then the chief clerk begins to speak “in the next room to the left” (Kafka 1971, 95), meanwhile Grete is whispering to him “from the right-hand room” (Kafka 1971, 95) then they communicate with each other through Gregor’s room. When Gregor is pushing a chair towards the door (Kafka 1971, 100), this is the double door that links his room with the living room. The opening of that door (together with the revelations of several other things) is also the manifestation of Gregor’s new vision, a wholly different perspective. Leaning “against the inside of the firmly shut wing of the door,” “his head bending sideways” (Kafka 1971, 100) he can simultaneously see the facade of the hospital on the other side of the street, the breakfast dishes in the living room, a photograph of himself on the opposite wall, and since “the door leading to the hall was open, and one could see that the front door stood open too,” he can also see “the landing beyond and the beginning of the stairs going down” (Kafka 1971, 101).
It is perhaps needless to point out that Gregor does not see all this looking around, but from the door connecting his room with the living room all at once. This perspective is made possible by the eyes at both sides of his head. This perspective is important because this imaginary axis of vision is going to serve as the basis for Gregor’s movement between his room and the living room. The double doors, from which this revelation took place, is going to remain at the same place in the later sections of the text as a kind of origin of a coordinate system, similarly to the side doors that do not change positions either. The confusion starts when the lodgers arrive, due to whom the family must alter the previous arrangement of the flat. They rent one of the rooms, and unnecessary objects find their way into Gregor’s room (Kafka 1971, 128) but it is not entirely clear where that room is that they take and where that room actually was so far. Earlier, one had a definite impression that the Samsa flat consisted of three bedrooms, a living room and an entrance hall. As a part of the new arrangement, the kitchen is added where the family retreats to (Kafka 1971, 129) and its relation to the living room and the entrance hall. “The three gentlemen,” who rent the room (who, therefore, live in the same room and eat in the kitchen), listen to Grete playing the violin at the hall door (Kafka 1971, 129) and then invite the family into the living room. When Gregor appears, “[the father] hurried toward them and, spreading put his arms, tried to urge them back into their own room and at the same time block their view of Gregor.” (Kafka 1971, 131.) That means that the lodgers’ room is connected with the living room. The possible location of the new rooms is marked with a broken line.
The Samsa flat must have been somewhat similar to Gregor’s narrow human room. Gregor’s body was transformed overnight dramatically, but clearly this is only the first stage of a larger process: the body and the relationship system to the body is continuously transforming throughout the whole story. Gregor’s room significantly alters in every sense, and it seems that parallel with this, the whole human space of the flat is also altered. The basis of the triadic system mentioned by Nabokov is probably the three doors leading to Gregor’s bedroom. While these doors are stable during the story (only their opening and closing are significant), Gregor’s room and the whole flat changes almost unnoticeably and becomes malleable. If the segmentation of Gregor’s body is felt but not seen “too clearly.” To be more exact: our attempt to describe the entomological structure of the insect precisely is doomed to fail just as if we try to describe the flat either poetically or logically. The layout of the Samsa flat, in fact, cannot be drawn. The walls and rooms can hardly be fitted into a regular rectangle. Only the doors are fixed, and if we want to have an image of the flat, it can only be acquired through the doors. The flat moves with Gregor and changes together with the family. One can observe the unnoticeable distortion, rearrangement and deformation of the flat. While we are abhorred to imagine the horrid body of Gregor, we lose our way in the labyrinth of his flat. Kafka’s real monsters are behind closed doors. These doors limit the clarity of vision, giving space to monstrous imagination and lethal indifference.
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- Sinka, Margit. 2008. „Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the Search for Meaning in Twentieth-Century German literature,” in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. New Edition, ed. Bloom, Harold. New York: Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations. 145–154.
The author’s research was supported by the grant EFOP-3.6.1-16-2016-00001 (“Complex improvement of research capacities and services at Eszterhazy Karoly University”).