Literary theory and informed criticism are both dreaded subjects for English majors and surprisingly useful tools to understand texts written for different cultures, times, and even geography. While most English majors will eventually calm down and begin to understand the value of these tools, many people in different fields will never understand the complexities of going through a literary story and truly discovering a far broader universe than what appears on the sheets of dead tree fibers tattooed with ink.

As the world changed (politically, geographically, through migrations and wars), some of the information concerning what was actually happening was encoded in an almost unconscious method by authors and artists. If you read a short story, for example, your interpretation may change by adding different lenses to refocus your attention. A diary of a young woman takes on a different concept when one discovers it was written by a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany. A wild tale of traveling the seas and encountering different creatures can be reinterpreted by someone using the lens for Homer’s time. A story of someone getting horrifically abused can hit close to home when one discovers it was written by a QUILTBAG high school student who overcame living in a conservative football-dominated Texas small town.

Literary theory helps us to not only interpret, but to also understand and appreciate how a work brings more to the table than what appears on the surface. By becoming an insightful observer and reader, one can form new conclusions, ideas, and even empathy from the work being interpreted. Indeed, as the different lenses are brought to bear, we can even see how the literary theories both built upon each other and, in some cases, even swept the foundations clean and started over – sometimes by the point of a Stalin bayonet.

By applying literary theory to old works of art and text, people began to understand there was more than what appeared on the surface. Different interpretations of famous literature appeared and expanded the understanding of the work based on perceiving it from a different perspective. Different angles produced different visions of the story. People began to interpret with these new lenses and to expand beyond the words on a page. Scholars interpreted the works either by using a formalist approach, seeking the truth within the words themselves as the frame of reference, or through a plethora of different cultural lenses to focus on the social concepts at the time where the author wrote the literature, bringing in the whole of the world to help to analyze what may be hidden beyond the words themselves.

The work I chose to focus on is Franz Kafka’s famous short story, The Metamorphosis. I was rather familiar with the story, having read many different translations of the bizarre tale because it was weird and different. I think at the time I first encountered it I was more focused on Lovecraft when Kafka’s tale slipped into my to-be-read pile. Some individuals might have picked a familiar story to make their work easier, but I specifically chose this due to the familiarity I had and the curiosity of examining something to see if I could extract some additional understanding and enjoyment. In the end, gleaning some kind of new insight from something I’ve read for pleasure seemed like a fun way to understand literary theory in a more practical sense.

New Historicism is one of the newer literary theories to evolve, first being formally recognized in the 1980s. This theory went against the theory of New Criticism, which attempted to focus more on the formal words on the page and reject any outside cultural influence from a historical perspective. As New Criticism fell out of favor, scholars began to notice that by bringing in different perspectives and lenses to view works of art and literature, the more possibilities there were for scholarly interpretations.

One important distinction of New Historicism is that the theory does not use history itself as a lens to interpret the work. The concept behind the theory is that we, as humans, can understand the tiny bits of history taught to us through works written by the victors of wars and vanquished peoples. What we end up learning are small data points of the overall outline of history without truly understanding what it was like living through history itself. New Historicists believe one can bring more understanding to the forefront by understanding some of the meaning behind the words chosen by an author who was living through a particular time frame. For Kafka’s tale, we can pick up some possible historical perspective beyond the words on the page.

With The Metamorphosis in mind, a cursory search of historical facts, admittedly skewed, gives us a starting point to see some of what it was like for Kafka to live as a human being in a strange and alienated world. This springboard can help us to select our lenses to view deeper than his words and, to some extent, through the words of his interpreters. With this in mind, I purposely selected a 1943 version of the story to try and keep the interpreter and the author in a relatively similar time frame (Kafka/Wyngaard). One issue that can get lost is how works are translated in different times. New word linking concepts can drastically change the text as it was written. I have several of Goethe’s works in German that was hand-translated by my great-grandmother, and I much prefer it to the polished printed editions. The words were from a closer time reference, both from an English and German perspective.

Franz Kafka was a Jewish author, and although he was raised in Prague and spoke German, he was neither a German nor Czech citizen because of his Jewish heritage. This stateless citizenship, coupled with his ennui concerning his Jewish family background, his father’s anger and violence due to Franz’ determination to be a writer instead of being in charge of the family business, and his diary entries of suicidal thoughts (Brod) could be considered the leading conditions of the urge to craft this story of alienation and disconnection to his family. Through Gregor, the protagonist of his short story, one can see some of what life was like for Jews during this time. Some people felt that Jews were the essence of one of the most abhorrent and disliked vermin, possibly echoing his feelings of futility, despair, and disappointment he received from his father and others around him. Many Westerners do not know of the hardships for those of Jewish faith outside of Nazi Germany. This glimpse into the life of a working Jew can be shocking.

During the early part of the 20th century, Jews were looked down upon by many societies, including Germany and France. Jews were only emancipated in the 1900s, and assimilating them was a difficult task for both cultures. In France, authors such as Eduoard Drumont attacked those of Jewish heritage after they were emancipated in 1791 by writing a literary attack in his book La France Juive. (Classon). In most of the European cultures, people of Jewish faith theoretically had basic human rights but were treated with distain. In those times, being Jewish was considered a matter of race, not religion (Classon).

In the story, Gregor becomes the embodiment of this type of thinking – that Jews were the lowest of the low. The treatment he received from even those he loved and supported through his labors echoed that of what Kafka dealt with on a daily basis (Brod). Gregor’s father ends up trying to drive him back to hiding in a bedroom with his cane, which can be a window into what it was like for Kafka and his father, who was angry that his son was more interested in becoming an author instead of working on taking over the family business. Constant fighting and battles led Kafka to become alienated from his family, which one could glimpse in the story through the lens of familial history. In his literary theory book, Peter Barry alerts us to focus on the traces of history dropped with the confines of the text and to avoid outside dictates of historical information (112). The context of the literature can itself be thought of as a partner to history.

The Metamorphosis is not just a work cast from a unique mold. Some of the ideas present can be seen in Jewish mythology and folk tales. Changing into different creatures can be found in several old stories, with the resulting furtherance of understanding and learning rules and transgression results helping to dictate familial values of those of Jewish faith (Band). It is possible that Kafka was trying to work out his issues with his father and how he felt alienated from society as a whole through this story, possibly as a cathartic process.

For the second interesting lens of analysis, I chose ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is the analysis of a work (such as a literary text) and how it relates to the cultural environment or to the physical environment – nature itself (Heise1). This theory is a more recent development brought about by changing cultural awareness of the environment and its associated sciences. This theory has grown until it has impacted not only cultural habits (recycling bins in many locations), but it has expanded until it has become a political issue. An example of this is the platform of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who wished to impose a carbon tax and work on reducing global warming. In a literary context, one would analyze how a work is related to or impacted by the environment within the story.

For The Metamorphosis, having Gregor turn into an insect and how the rest of his still-human relatives and acquaintances treat him is one such point of intersection. The familial dynamic is upset because the main earner for the family unit is suddenly removed from viability. For the physical environment lens, by making Gregor the equivalent of a dung beetle, Kafka attempted to evoke a sense of disgust that many people would feel towards an insect. Even though we, the reader, understand that Gregor is still inside the creature, using Gregor's mind and memories, his family does not. They do their best to dismiss him, to hide him away as though he were something shameful, and even to cause him harm.

Prior to Gregor's transformation, he was the breadwinner for the family. In a sense, he was the host and his family was the parasite clinging on for their share of what Gregor earned. Once he transformed, however, he was no longer their meal ticket. He became the parasite hiding out in a bedroom, and the family became the host. Without Gregor's income, things became difficult for the family.

After the metamorphosis, the environment of Gregor's room becomes a bizarre world where he can no longer function. The skewing of the landscape from the familiar to the otherworldly often creates internal clashes in the reader (Heise2). What was once familiar and comforting is now alien and terrifying. Even the simple task of rolling over in his bed becomes a struggle that takes a while to accomplish. When his boss arrives to ask about Gregor's absence, unlocking a door and turning the doorknob become an almost insurmountable task with Gregor's new appendages. Of course, once the door is opened, everyone is horrified and Gregor is no longer employable.

The family itself tries to make some adjustments for Gregor. Grete, his sister, sees that the insect likes to crawl around the room and the walls, so they remove some of the furniture to give him more space. Because he can no longer communicate, he can't tell them to leave his favorite picture on the wall. Grete feeds him, discovering that his appetite is that of a carrion bug. Scraps are his new favorite food. Her disgust is palpable, and in the end even she abandons him to the loneliness.

When one considers the point of narration, realizing that the narrator is via third person and, possibly, unreliable, gives the story an additional tinge of despair and alienation. We see and understand some of the thoughts and reactions of all involved, yet we can become confused because of Gregor’s strange acceptance of his new environment. Waking up as an insect would normally be something that would cause alarm and hysteria, yet the family almost seems to see it as something more of an inconvenience. The juxtaposition of the actions versus the thoughts of the family creates a jarring backdrop to the tale.

What was once a straightforward Bizarro tale has transformed into something more thanks to reading through the different lenses of literary theory. I found it fascinating that there could be such a wonderful, rich loam which the familiar story floated upon. There are now new windows of reflection and understanding that transcend my original reading experience. With the lenses of Ecocriticism and New Historicism, I can now see additional material embedded between the words. The world-building went beyond the words selected by the author – they were enhanced through the world reflecting through Kafka and his life experiences. I would have missed the nuances of the subtext without taking classes on literary criticism. In a sense, I now see The Metamorphosis as a rainbow of stories waiting for your eyes to adjust and appreciate.


Works Cited or Referenced:

Classon, Sarah B. "Kafka’s Identity Crisis: Examining The Metamorphosis as a Response to Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in Turn-of-the-Century Europe.", 1 Mar. 2014. Web. 6 July 2016.

Brod, Max, G. Humphreys Roberts, and Richard Winston. Franz Kafka: A Biography. (Translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston.) With Plates and Facsimiles. New York: Schocken Books, 1963. Print.

Band, Arnold J. Studies in Modern Jewish Literature. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003. Print.

Kafka, Franz, and C. Wyngaard. Metamorphosis (Translated). Berlin: DBGP, 1943. Print.

Heise, Ursula K. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ecocriticism." PMLA 121.2 (2006): 503-16. Web.

Heise, Ursula K. "Science and ecocriticism." The American Book Review18.5 (1997): 4.

Brizee, Allen, et al. "Welcome to the Purdue OWL." Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. Purdue University, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 5 July 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015. Print.