Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Gay/Lesbian Critique of Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'

I've got more "Literary Theory Week" for ya!  I'm sure you are bored, but whatever... this is my blog.  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 gay/lesbian theory:

Although homosexuality has always existed amongst humans, the term “homosexual” wasn’t ever used until 1869 and the emergence of gay and lesbian literary theory—or “queer theory”—as a respected field didn’t come about until the 1990s.  As one of the newest approaches to the study of literature, gay/lesbian theory is arguably one of the most fascinating.  In this paper, I will first give a summary of what is lesbian theory and it’s relation to feminism before going into the branch known as queer theory.  I will base my comments on the book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry.  After this summary, I will illustrate gay/lesbian theory with the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.
Barry, in the third edition of his book, begins by explaining the seemingly obvious:  “Lesbian/gay criticism is not of exclusive interest to gays and lesbians” (134).  And just as one needn’t be gay to study it, Barry clarifies that “books about gay writers, or by gay critics, are not necessarily part of lesbian and gay studies” (134).  Thus a story such as “The Metamorphosis,” written by a heterosexual male without obvious gay characters, can still be treated under the gay/lesbian approach which we will address later.
Gay/lesbian criticism—much like feminism—isn’t a completely unified field.  Barry speaks of two major emphases, the first one being an offshoot of feminism itself.  Lesbian feminists, according to Barry, find that feminism has become too institutionalized and focuses solely on middle-class heterosexual women—excluding lesbians (135).  Lesbian feminists, as succinctly stated by Barry, hope to overturn this heterosexism (136).  Barry claims the conflict between heterosexual feminists and lesbians was somewhat defused with an essay by a lesbian feminist named Adrienne Rich (136).  Rich, as explained by Barry, developed the idea of a “lesbian continuum” which suggests that all female relationships—ranging from friendships to sexual relationships—can be seen as a kind of lesbianism (137).  This somehow desexualizes lesbianism and makes it more a matter of allegiance.
While some lesbians identify themselves more with other women, some make allegiances with gay men and thus we see the emergence of “queer theory.”  As Barry points out in his book, queer theory is similar to post-structuralism in its manner of deconstructing binary concepts, in this case the concepts of heterosexual/homosexual (138).  Binary pairs tend to favor one over the other—alluding to the same heterosexism lesbian feminists fought to eliminate—and as Barry informs us, queer theory aims to deconstruct these notions (139).  Along with this is the focus on deconstructing sexual identity as a whole.  Barry quotes from one of the central contemporary queer theorists Judith Butler who argues that sexual identity is not inherent or essential, but rather a social construct, saying, “[Identities are] a kind of impersonation and approximation… a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (139).  Another queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, adds that our identity is “fluid” and changes focus in different social situations (Barry 140).  So “identity” is really just a series of masks and roles that are all contingent and improvisatory, and “homosexuality” is just one part of a complex system of other non-inherent factors.
In order to better understand gay/lesbian theory in regards to identity, I would like to use passages from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as examples.  The character of Gregor is caught in what queer theorists would call a “liminal” state, meaning he is between identities.  He doesn’t know how to see himself, and his family looks at him differently now too.  He used to identify himself as a salesman, a man and a provider, but all of that was unstable.   On page 7 of the text, Gregor notes that there is a “fog” outside his window and he sits waiting for “the return of things to the way they really and naturally were” (Kafka 7).  The fog can be seen as a metaphor of his liminal state and it is clear that he hopes for things to go “back to normal” as they say, meaning that he hopes he can once again identify himself as society would see fitting.

But it is clear to Gregor that he is undergoing some kind of change, and he worries how others will react.  In fact, as he makes the decision to come out of his room for the first time, there is a strong resemblance to a closeted homosexual making the decision to “come out of the closet.”  The text reads, “He actually intended to open the door, actually present himself…  he was eager to find out what the others, 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 and could be calm” (Kafka 10).  Unfortunately, his family does not react well to Gregor’s “homosexuality.”

Clear signs of homophobia are present when Gregor comes out of his room.  The manager backed away slowly “as if repulsed by an invisible, unrelenting force,” the mother fell to the floor and the father “clenched his fist, as if to drive Gregor back into his room” (Kafka 12).  In fact, almost every time Gregor comes out of his room, the father does his best to get Gregor back inside.  In one particularly horrible scene, Gregor’s father throws an apple at his son (Kafka 29).  The apple can be seen as an “identity” or “name” thrust upon Gregor.  At first the apple is “thrown weakly” and does not harm Gregor, “but the very next one that came flying after it literally forced its way into Gregor’s back” (Kafka 29).  Once the “identity” has been forced upon him, Gregor feels “nailed to the spot… in a complete confusion of all his senses” (Kafka 29).  This illustrates Gregor’s distaste for identity labels and his own desire to stay in the liminal state forever, which ultimately cannot be done.  Non-identity is unstable and his freedom is ultimately his condemnation.

As Peter Barry was so quick to point out, gay/lesbian theory affects people of all sexual orientations, genders and identities.  The idea that all identities—whether they are “homosexual” or otherwise—are nonessential and completely based on societal expectations has widespread implications.  Gay/lesbian theory argues that there is so much more to the human condition than the labels we choose to identify with and our sexual acts are just one small part of our multifaceted existence. 

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.


Declan said...

I just read the Metamorphosis with my AP English class, and I was curious if anyone else supposed the metaphor might relate to homosexuality. Well written!

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