Sunday, March 27, 2011

Archetypes in The Metamorphosis

Hi Everyone,

Sorry this post is late - I was home for the weekend and got back WAY later than anticipated.

In my search for a common list of archetypes, I've found such exhaustive information, that I feel like any character you can characterize as "The X,Y,Z" is an archetype (e.g. The Bully, The Teacher's Pet). An element of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" that I find to be very interesting through our lens is the fact that the archetypes seem to be presented through shifts. This is to say, the characters occupy different archetypal roles as the story progresses. This is apparent as early as the first line in the novella, when Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself "transformed into an enormous pest" (63). Though I interpret that we are to take this transformation to be literal, the words of this line can be picked apart to show many archetypal references. For one, there is the connotation of the word "pest" - as in, parasitic, bothersome, unnecessary, and even something life/people would be better off without. Then there is the word "transformed," which suggests (as we find out is correct throughout the continuation of the story) that Gregor moves from being one who contributes to being one who exploits... though I'd argue that Gregor is forced by his condition to be one who technically "exploits," as in requires the assistance of others. To me it seems that Gregor is now in the role of The Parasite. Though this may not be on a top ten list of archetypes, I feel it is nonetheless a commonly occurring role in a society or group - the one who uses but contributes nothing.

The thing that makes this story so fascinating, though, is that Gregor certainly did not always fill this role. Though he now is confined by his buggy condition to his room or other isolated parts of his home, he was once the primary breadwinner for his family, while his father sat at the kitchen table, seemingly interminably, demanding work and effort from his wife and children, yet contributing no discernible amount himself. Here, Gregor was once The Provider, and his father was The Pest/The Parasite. When Gregor is suddenly forced by his physical state to change his role within his family (=society), no one in his family knows how to react. With his formerly affectionate sister at one point exclaiming " 'It has to go,'... and practically vaulted off her chair, as if she'd rather sacrifice her [mother] than remain in Gregor's vicinity" (94). This pronounced - and devastatingly sad - shift in feeling toward Gregor, essentially for the physical version of a role shift, suggests a deeper issue about society: that one is bound (by expectations, if nothing else) to stick to the role they've established. Any departure from the norm might result in disdain, anger, or even - as Kafka depicts - grotesque horror.

This idea of societal impact on archetypal roles and "role maintenance" seems like an interesting one to explore in teaching this unit. I like that we could take the discussion from the text (e.g. What are the roles played by the family members in the story? How do these roles change?) to the personal OR general (e.g. What are roles in society? How do people come to inhabit their role? Can one ever change the role they assume, and if so - how?), or even the opposite order. I'd like to discuss this element more together in class tomorrow.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great post! I loved what you were saying about the shifting archetypal roles that characters adopt as the story progresses.

    I think this really speaks to the complex nature of literary characterization and how we "label" people and place them into "roles" and "genres". In a way, archetypes exist because we exist, so we will always have an intimate relationship with them. There will always be "certain kinds of people" and this is because we are creatures of habit! The societal impact which you discussed is undeniable. It seems that this whole archetypal system contains a paradox: universal, but relative.