Saturday, 21 July 2012

To Be a Bug or Not to Be a Bug

If you woke up one morning to find yourself changed in your bed into a monstrous, bug-like vermin, what would be your primary concern?

I just read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. If you haven't guessed, it's about this guy that wakes up one morning to discover that he's transmogrified into a giant bug. Although the story is not a feel-good one, I found Gregor's initial reaction to his change kind of funny.

*Beware the spoilers*

His initial reaction and biggest concern is to worry about getting to work on time. Now, I think you should be able to agree with me that this is a completely unreasonable fear. Granted, Gregor may have had a strict, verging on slave-driver, boss, but even evil movie villains consider transmogrification a legitimate reason to stay home from work.

Take Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove, for example. When her goon is turned into a cow and, as a result, asks to go home, she agrees that he may leave, despite being caught in the middle of a chase. She then offers to let his coworkers, who have also been turned into various creatures, follow suit.

Apparently Gregor Samsa never had the chance to see this movie.

Now, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes seems intrigued by the idea of turning into a bug (I wonder if he read Kafka's story), and he goes so far as to make "bug" one of the four options on his transmogrifier. In his own words, "Just think! With the push of a button, you could be a 500-storey gastropod - a slug, the size of the Chrysler building!" Hobbes replies, "Gosh, how can I refuse?"

However, while Calvin does at one point turn his duplicates into worms, he never attempts to turn himself into a bug, opting instead for a tiger. This decision was probably a good choice. As stated before, things don't turn out too well for Gregor. While it initially looks like his sister, at least, will eventually get used to and accept his being a giant vermin, she ends up suggesting to the rest of their family that they "get rid of" him. His father throws fruit at him, which permanently maims him. His mother shrieks and nearly faints every time she sees him. And then Gregor basically says, "hang it all, they're right, this sucks for everyone" and dies.

In real life, I would probably not treat most shape-shifters very well, either. Not because I don't enjoy talking to animals, but because I would be terrified that every animal crossing my path is either a voyeuristic creep or a spy for some organization out to get me. Not everyone has this paranoia. In Space 1999, the other characters always treat Maya like Maya, despite whatever poorly-suited-for-the-situation creature she's decided to turn into. When somebody is trying to kill her and she turns into a caterpillar for the occasion, Tony tries his hardest to save her. But would he have been that generous if there were no foreseeable future wherein the caterpillar turns back into humanoid Maya again?

The Metamorphosis is all about isolation, and what it does to a person. Even though Gregor is still Gregor on the inside, if not on the outside, he becomes more bestial and brutish in his thinking as the story goes on, or at least less civilized and decent. While the literal giant vermin picture makes everything more curious and even oddly funny, it makes you ponder who we treat as non-literal giant vermin, and who else we would treat as vermin with just a change or two in the situation.

It's short, easy to read, and good food for thought.

Possibly my favourite (understated) lines in the book:

"At the moment he was lying on the carpet, and no one knowing his condition could seriously have expected him to let the manager in."

"He was eager to find out what the others [in his family], who were now so anxious to see him, would say at the sight of him. If they were shocked, then Gregor had no further responsibility [to go to work] and could be calm. But if they took everything calmly, then he, too, had no reason to get excited and could, if he hurried, actually be at the station by eight o'clock."

1 comment:

Art said...

I don't think I have ever turned into a different creature at night. I guess Nebuchadnezzar turned into a cow (or thought he was one - Daniel 4:33) I am not sure if I would rather be a cow or a bug but I am thinking a cow is better than a bug unless you are a really big bug.

If you turned into a bug, I would still love you but if your brain also turned into a bug brain, then I guess I would already consider you as dead.