Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Feminist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

More "Literary Theory Week!"  Woohoo!  In my English 2600 class taught by Professor Albrecht-Crane at UVU, we began by reading the short story "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka.  Then we applied every theory we discussed (one a week) to that short story.  Here is my paper on feminism:

Feminism, simply stated, is a movement for the social and political rights of women.  However, feminism in regards to literary theory is far from simple to explain, with many contentious debates sprouting up within feminism itself.  In order to fully understand the many aspects of feminism—or as my professor likes to say, “feminisms”—I will first discuss three areas where the feminist viewpoints clash according to the book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry.  After this summary, I will illustrate the feminist approach by applying some of the theories to the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.
Barry, in the third edition of his book, suggests that the debates in contemporary feminism center around three areas:  the role of theory, the role of language and the role of psychoanalysis.  Beginning with the role of theory, Barry explains that there exist Anglo-American feminists and French feminists (119-120).   Anglo-American feminists, as Barry points out, tend to be more akin to the liberal humanists we’ve discussed already in this class with the more universal belief that the text reflects the experiences of real-life women (119).  In contrast to this, Barry relates French feminists to post-structuralists who believe that the text does not represent reality and who also lean towards psychoanalysis in their theories (120).  Feminists cannot agree amongst themselves how theory plays a part in feminism.
The second point of contention that Barry sites is the role of language—or rather, is there such a thing as female language?  Some of the French feminists (and even some of the Anglo-American feminists) believe that language itself is masculine and patriarchal, but according to Barry, they believe in the notion of écriture feminine proposed by the French theorist Hélène Cixous (122).  Yet another group of French feminists, as Barry relates, do not believe language to be based on biological sex at all, and find both symbolic and semiotic (or masculine and feminine) styles of writing to exist in the world, as proposed by Julia Kristeva (123).  These two views of language seem to be always at odds in feminist criticisms.
The last area of disagreement focuses on the role psychoanalysis should play in feminism.  Barry states that some feminists reject the theory of psychoanalysis completely because it was developed by Sigmund Freud whom they believe to be a sexist—which is more or less true—and his ideas only perpetuate false notions of womanhood (125).  However, Barry notes that other feminist critics find that Lacan’s teachings were much more “paralogical” or “feminine” and they do accept psychoanalysis (126).  This debate over the usefulness of psychoanalysis is highly contentious, just as the arguments regarding theory and language.
In order to better understand some of the many ideas voiced through feminism, I will attempt to do a feminist treatment of Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis” based on an essay by the feminist critic Nina Pelikan Straus.  In Straus’ essay “Transforming Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” she takes a more Anglo-American approach when she examines the author’s biography and finds the connections between his own life and the characters he has written.  She says that Kafka himself might have had a “fantasy of a gender role change” (129), basing this idea on the fact that Kafka wrote many letters to a woman named Felice Bauer (132), writing of his own weaknesses and seeking strength from her—not unlike Gregor’s debilitating condition and need for female caregivers.  Both Kafka’s and Gregor’s actions suggest that they feel inadequate in their masculine roles and seek to live as women… but of course they can’t.
In other arguments, Straus seems to be more of a French feminist, breaking down the text of the story like a post-structuralist would.  She first quotes a passage from Kafka’s story—one describing Gregor’s sister Grete—and then spends the next few paragraphs analyzing the language of the passage phrase by phrase (131).  For example, Straus claims the words “defiance” and “self-confidence” suggest masculine qualities in Grete, although other words and phrases such as “childish” and “romantic enthusiasm of girls her age” suggest attributes attributed to femininity (131).  These contradictions by Kafka both sympathize with Grete and condemn her all in one breath.  Straus claims that indeterminacy like this “parallels the fissure between a male identity… and a male desire to become woman, not to possess her” (131).  Again we see the blending of gender roles.
Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” has quite a lot to say about gender roles, especially when viewed upon through the keen eyes of feminism.  Because of the many avenues by way of theory, language and psychoanalysis, feminism is a vibrant and ever-evolving way to critique literature.  One feminist may vary from the other, but each will utilize their tools—whether they be post-structuralist or more liberal humanistic—to confront society’s views on sex and gender. 

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd Ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print. 

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

Straus, Nina Pelikan.  “Transforming Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis” The Metamorphosis. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

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