I’ve actually been called a monster before for holding this stance (I think it was semi-joking, but semi-joking still implies semi-serious). If I’m a monster for finding Kafka humorous, then I’ll happily accept the label; I’ll share it with the man himself. Anecdotes abound of dear old Franz taking his short stories to the local bar and sharing them with his fellow patrons, often laughing as he did so, only to be met with silence.
When I read “The Metamorphosis” for the first time, I honestly laughed out loud for a good chunk of the beginning of the book. Gregor Samsa’s transformation is essentially absurd: waking up as a giant bug is obviously not a realistic event. What’s hilarious is his reaction: as he waves his little bug legs around in the air, attempting to roll his gross insect body out of bed, his thoughts don’t revolve around his brand new physical state. Instead, he’s upset he’s going to miss the train, which will make him late for work, which will upset his boss, which will upset his father, which will upset his sister…and so on. Eventually, his boss shows up at his home, angry with Gregor, and his father and sister try to intercede and coax Gregor out of his room. No one, at this point, is aware that Gregor is now a bug, other than Gregor himself; he attempts to verbally defend himself, but is incoherent to everyone on the other side of the door because they don’t speak cockroach. They panic and burst into his room, only to be stopped short by the sight of buggy Gregor, chilling on the floor. Shock and horror set in, and there is a lot of crying.
The real humor in “The Metamorphosis”, though, isn’t the obvious absurdity of Gregor’s condition and the superficial response his family has. It lies in the filial devotion Gregor still has for his family that he internalizes to a pathological degree. He is locked in his bedroom and forbidden from interacting with the rest of the family and kept a secret from the boarders who rent rooms from them. (I should warn you that from this point on, there are spoilers. Can you spoil a book that was published in 1915? Well, I warned you.) Despite how explicit his parents and sister make their revulsion of Gregor, his final thoughts before he dies are loving and hopeful for their happiness. After they find his corpse, they go out into the world and are, actually, quite happier and relieved that their weird bug son is now dead.
For me, though, it doesn’t stop there. “The Metamorphosis” needs to be contextualized with two other short stories by Kafka: “The Stoker” and “The Judgment.” Originally, he had wanted them published together as a collection entitled “The Sons,” but his publisher shot him down. The most obvious connector between the three is this pathological devotion that is exemplified in Gregor, and that Kafka himself struggled with. He spent a good chunk of his life living in his parent’s living room, writing letters to his fiancée about how much they sucked. But they were still his parents, and he was still living with them. This attempt to reconcile the (often conflicting) familial experience through text is what makes the collection so very funny and so very bleak. But it’s the combination that heightens the experience of both extremes for the reader, in my opinion. Without the parts of “The Metamorphosis” that I find humorous, I would not find the ending to be as emotionally impactful, and vice versa. What really matters, though, is that Kafka and I agree on something: he’s super funny.
-Anna Horn ‘16