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Our new feature, Literary Learnings, give us a chance to explore the world of writing beyond the words of our favorite authors. We hope you enjoy learning along with us.

A. E. Decker is the Chief Editor of Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. In addition, she is a former ESL tutor and doll-maker turned writer of fantasy. Her short stories have appeared in such magazines as Beneath Ceaseless SkiesFireside Magazine, and The Sockdolager as well as in the BWG's own anthologies, Once Around the Sun, which she helped edit, and Untethered. Her YA novels in the Moonfall Mayhem series include The Falling of the Moon, The Meddlers of Moonshineand Into the Moonless Nightall from World Weaver Press. Like all writers, she is owned by three cats. 

Gregor Samsa awoke from restless dreams to discover he’d been transformed into a giant cockroach.

This opening line, from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), is one of the most famous in modern literature. Like all good beginnings, it raises a series of questions that compels us to read on, hoping to discover the answers: Why did this man transform into a cockroach? What will he do now? Will he regain his humanity?

The only problem is, Gregor Samsa didn’t actually turn into a cockroach.

Welcome to Literary Learnings, The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable’s newest feature, where a member of the BWG researches a favorite author or story and shares what they’ve learned with our readers, taking a literary, historical, or, occasionally, humorous perspective.

Since this is our “Ants at the Picnic” issue, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis seems a fitting story to begin our new series. It is probably the most famous work of literature to feature an insect. Bugs are not commonly the subject of novels or poetry—and why should they be, when the mere sight of them fills so many people with instant, visceral disgust?

The disgust is, of course, the entire point of The Metamorphosis, even if, as mentioned above Gregor Samsa does not awaken as a cockroach—or a beetle, or even an ant. For English speakers, part of the confusion over Greogor’s transformation can be blamed on translation. The Metamorphosis was written in German, and the exact words Kafka uses are “ungehuer Ungeziefer” which indicate something both monstrous and unclean. In English, we may as well say “a giant creepy-crawler” as “a giant cockroach.”

But linguistic subtleties aside, Kafka took pains to conceal the exact nature of Gregor’s transformation. Although, while working on the story, he used the word Wanze, or bug, to describe Gregor’s change, he specifically wrote to his publisher to prohibit any drawings of the transformed Gregor either on the front, or within the pages of the short novel. While many subsequent editions do feature some sort of beetle on their covers, the first edition portrayed a very human man, covering his face with his hands, recoiling from some horror he’d evidently just glimpsed through an open door.

The text itself only adds to the confusion. While Gregor does climb walls, and seems to possess some kind of shell or exoskeleton, he also, as the story progresses, begins speaking in squeaky tones more befitting a rodent than an insect. As his condition deteriorates, he suffers from animalistic compulsions to bite his sister and swing from the ceiling; behavior which also does not seem suited to an insect.

Gregor himself never gets a clear view of his altered body. And since The Metamorphosis is told from his point of view, we readers share his bafflement and must suffer along with his struggles to adjust. It is the reactions of the other characters—his parents, sister, and the charwoman—that confirm that Gregor has outwardly changed from a provider and protector into something else. Otherwise, we might be left to wonder if the transformation was real, or a delusion of Gregor’s.

Instead, Kafka traps us in Gregor’s, as he is trapped in his new body. We are forced to endure all the misunderstandings and indignities along with him, equally ignorant of why this has happened or what he has become. All that is certain is that he has become something too loathsome for even his nearest relations to tolerate.

Perhaps that is why, despite the fact that Kafka never explicitly reveals the nature of Gregor’s transformation, the mind turns so easily to “cockroach.” There is perhaps not a creature on earth humans despise more. The discovery of their presence in a house or an apartment is generally followed by a swift call to an exterminator. More chillingly, “cockroaches” are how we frequently describe unwanted members of our own race, be they immigrants or ex-convicts, or people of a different race or sexual orientation. Once a group has been labeled as something undesirable, even verminous, it becomes easier for society at large to overlook calls for justice on their behalf—or even look the other way as their rights, or even lives, are chipped away.

This, then, is the power of Kafka’s story. The Metamorphosis is a chronicle of the suffering of a man who has, through no fault of his own, been cast out not merely of society, but humanity. By locking us into Gregor’s perspective, Kafka gives us no mercy, no chance for escape, and, perhaps most cruelly, no explanation. We never do discover the answer to the question that the opening line begs: How did Gregor turn into a cockroach?

Perhaps Kafka doesn’t bother because the answer is too simple. Sadly, all we have to do is browse the internet for a couple hours to find many examples of people working to recast members of their own race as “others”--something filthy, undesirable, and worthy of persecution.

Like cockroaches.

Except Kafka never said cockroach.

And Gregor always remained human on the inside.

As anyone who’s read The Metamorphosis knows, Gregor does not get a happy ending. He allows himself to starve to death, and his family rejoices, feeling freed of the burden of his presence. All it seems that we, as readers, can do is silently seethe, hating Gregor’s family for their indifference and ingratitude.

But, there is something we can do. We can try to learn from Kafka’s tale. We can try to be better than Gregor’s family. When faced with someone who does not share our views, or has an unusual appearance or odd way of talking, we can try to look past the outward differences to see the person beneath. We can, each and every day, recognize each other’s humanity.

That’s the power of literature. Go forth and find it in this world.

Thank you for reading Literary Learnings. I hope you found it edifying. Think twice before squashing the next insect you see! A duck may be somebody’d brother, and an ant may be someone’s aunt.

Until next time, happy reading!