When discussing literary theory, the best place to start is deconstructing what literary theory consists of. So, what is literary theory? It is the practice in which you utilize different lenses to analyze literature, art, and even culture. (Brizee et al., 2015) Some examples of these lenses, or better known as theories, are as follows: Formalism, Marxist criticism, structuralism and semiotics, gender studies and queer theory, and psychoanalytic criticism to name a few. As stated earlier, these theories are a way for us to look at various works with different mindsets. Now, we will be focusing on literary theory as it applies to literature. What this allows us to do is to think outside of the box instead of taking what is being evaluated at face value. We can determine what contextual factors from the author’s life may have contributed to a work’s creation. (Brizee et al., 2015) For example, if I am viewing something from a Feminist Criticism perspective I would focus on the female characters of the story. From this, I could determine the historical context of the time in which the story was written as well as the views the author has of women based on their female characters’ actions and motivations.
I am a fiction writer, and I have a deep appreciation for works that focus on the fantastical and even the bizarre. That is why I have chosen to analyze Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The story caught my attention right away as it starts off with the main character, Gregor, waking up in his own bed in the body of a giant insect that’s not specifically identified. We follow him on his adventure as he attempts to cope with his transformation and we see how those closest to him react to it as well. However, as I began to think about what’s being presented in the story, along with studying the theories I’ve chosen to utilize, I started to see that this was more than just a simple entertainment piece.
I am a gay man, so it is important to me as a writer to include that part of me since I feel that queer writers are very under-represented in the literary world. This is why the first literary theory I have chosen to use for my final is gender studies and queer Theory (1970s – Present). Gender studies and queer theory deals with the subject of sexuality, power, and marginalized people. The focus is to examine how gender and sexuality are presented within a work of literature. The field of gender studies and queer theory developed from other branches of literary theory such as post-structuralism and psychoanalysis. It was also influenced by feminist criticism.
The problem this theory solves is that we can get an understanding of what views an author has on homosexuality and other marginalized groups. Often how a writer makes their characters are reflective of how they view those individuals. For example, a misogynist would write women into weak roles that are uninspiring, clichéd, or degrading (Brizee et al., 2010). In my case, I can use this lens to get a better understanding of how Kafka felt about homosexuals.
As stated previously, there are those, myself included, that believe Kafka could have been a closeted gay man. Because of this, I believe that Metamorphosis was a figurative representation of what Kafka believed the reaction a family would have if they were to find out a loved one was gay. That is why I believe this theory would be a good fit for my analysis. The reasons why I believe this is so are that although his family is so bothered by his transformation, Gregor (the main character of the story) seems to adapt quickly and accept the changes he’s gone through. The only people who have an issue with his transformation are those around him, including his family members. This mirrors many coming out stories for homosexuals who have decided to tell their families their sexual orientation.
It’s also not a typical sort of fantasy tale where everything is beautifully resolved by the end. Gregor never finds a way to transition back to being a human, and his family begins to think of him as a burden to the family. Even his sister Grete, who was the most supportive and understanding of the family, eventually grows tired of taking care of him. Gregor overhears his family’s wishes for him to be gone and retires back to his room where he dies. This is a sad representation of what LGBT youth have gone through, and even still go through today.
There is a deep sense of isolation and loneliness that comes with being a marginalized member of society, so when your family doesn’t even accept you it can lead to deep feelings of self-hatred and depression. In fact, LGBT youth are at the highest risk of suicide, and according to a study done in 1991, nearly 29% of the gay and bisexual young men they interviewed had attempted suicide at one point or another in their lives (Remafedi et al., 1991).
What Gregor experiences instantly called out to me and similar feelings I had as a gay man. Although, on the surface, this story seems like something light-hearted and humorous it quickly turns into a tragedy when his family is relieved at his passing. They feel as though they can continue their lives now that he has died and, unfortunately, that’s how many LGBT youths are treated. I was fortunate enough to have a family that accepted me, but I could have just as easily been born into a family like Gregor who were horrified and burdened by my existence. It’s a sad commentary on society when something this fantastical can be so close to the truth.
The second theory I have chosen to analyze my chosen work of literature is Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present). Psychoanalytic criticism is developed from Freudian theories of psychology mainly in regards to the unconscious, the desires, and the defenses. Freud’s work on these concepts began in the 1880s while he was working with his patients on various disorders. His initial diagnosis of these disorders was called Hysteria and he used to talk to his patients as a method to delve into his patient’s problems. Freud theorized that all the desires we possess and the issues we have within ourselves create three different areas in our minds that fight for power as we progress through life. These are known as the id, ego, and superego. Psychoanalytic criticism attempts to use these theories to see if any of these concepts are at play within them. The problem this theory solves is that it allows us to use psychology to see implied meaning behind symbolism and to explore the desires of the author (Brizee et al., 2013).
Viewing it from a psychoanalytic perspective, I can see how this story represents Kafka’s own desires and his own repressed sexuality. Per my research, an article I have found states: “The Metamorphosis is a symbolic presentation of Gregor’s unconscious world. Per Freud, our mind consists of two parts: conscious and unconscious. He demonstrated that our suppressed wills, feelings, horrors, drives, conflicts and even memories are held in the unconscious part of our psyche” (Barfi et al., 2013). This means that through what Kafka writes in his story we can see how the symbolism, imagery, and even how the story is set up can give us clues into the desires, needs, and mindset that Kafka possesses when writing this story. In fact, in a psychological study of his work, the author states, “Kafka’s stories present symbolically his inner personality so professionally that understanding his stories is possible just when one has a precise view of his life” (Barfi et al., 2013).
For instance, connecting to my other literary theory where I have insinuated that Kafka was a homosexual himself, the loneliness and isolation that Gregor felt in the story might have mirrored how Kafka felt in his daily life. If he were a closeted gay man then this would make a lot of sense, especially thinking back to the historical context of Kafka’s life. In fact, during the time Metamorphosis was written the Austrian-Hungary government was looking for ways to “control the homosexual problem.” Utilizing them for slave work was just one of the many ways the government considered dealing with homosexuals (Takács, 2017). Being in a society with such hostile views of homosexuals, it would be no wonder why Kafka would have chosen to remain in the closet.
In fact, previous research about Kafka’s hidden desires has been touched upon. Referring back to the article in the Research Journal of Recent Sciences I mentioned earlier, it states that, “Metaphorically, this big insect is considered to as Gregor’s repressed desires which are showed in disguised form. In this sense, Gregor’s transferring into an insect and therefore his interring into an unconscious world is an escape from oppressive tyranny and cruel restraints of the father, superego. As a result, he is guilty in his father’s eye and should be punished” (Barfi et al., 2013). There is a lot of talk of guilt on Gregor’s part of the story because he feels like all his family’s misfortune is his fault. However, how does this connect back to Kafka, and what sort of guilt could he be feeling?
Well, mainly this has to do with Kafka and his own relationship with his father. Per the article I addressed earlier, Kafka wrote a letter addressing his father as being “tyrannical.” From this letter, we can conclude that Kafka blames his father for much of his issues with his self-conscious and his build-up of guilt. Many homosexuals feel a sense of guilt, especially those from Christian backgrounds. You feel as though you are going against God’s word, against your families wishes for you, and against society’s acceptance of what is normal. It could be that his repressed homosexual feelings perpetuated those feelings of guilt especially when Kafka lived in a country that was hostile to homosexuals.
I think it is important for us to find the history of queer work where it could be present, even if there is a sense of uncertainty and speculation. Kafka represents a time when sexualities that went against the norm was criminalized. If we are to better tomorrow, then should learn from yesterday and continue to pass down that knowledge for generations to come. Utilizing queer theory and psychoanalysis has helped me to better understand a man through his words. If only we could apply literary theory to all aspects of our lives perhaps we would be able to understand one another better. I’m not saying literary theory is the remedy for the poison inflicted upon our world, but it is certainly a much-needed treatment.
Barfi, Zahra, Fatemeh Azizmohammadi, and Hamedreza Kohzadi. “A Study of Kafka’s the Metamorphosis in the Light of Freudian Psychological Theory.” Research Journal of Recent Sciences. Medha Innovation & Development (M.I.D), 30 June 2013. Web. 20 May 2017. <http://www.isca.in/rjrs/archive/v2/i10/16.ISCA-RJRS-2013-202.pdf>.
Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. “Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970s- present).” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 Jun. 2017.
Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. “Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present)” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University, 03 Jun. 2013. Web. 03 Jun. 2017.
Remafedi, Gary, James A. Farrow, and Robert W. Deisher. “Risk Factors for Attempted Suicide in Gay and Bisexual Youth.” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, 01 June 1991. Web. 08 June 2017. <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/87/6/869.short>.
Sivan, Yoav. “How Straight Could Kafka Have Been?” The Gay & Lesbian Review. Yale University Press, 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 04 June 2017. <http://www.glreview.org/article/how-straight-could-kafka-have-been/>.
Takács, Judit. “Listing Homosexuals since the 1920s and under State Socialism in Hungary.” In: Gender in twentieth-century eastern Europe and the USSR. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. pp. 157-170. Repository of the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Web. 4 June 2017.