Monday, April 23, 2012

A Liberal Humanist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

Welcome to "Literary Theory Week!"  I'm sure you are more than enthused to learn about various theories being used by literary critics today.  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.  I suggest you read that story because it is amazing!  Here is the first paper I had to write on the approach known as liberal humanism:

The academic study of the English language traces its roots back only a century and a half ago, yet the traditional way in which we analyze literature—herein referred to as a liberal humanist approach, coined by the literary theorist Peter Barry—feels as old as time.  Liberal humanism is engrained in many of us without us even knowing it.  In an attempt to examine this approach, I will first discuss some of its basic tenets as explained by Barry and then apply these ideas critically to the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.
According to the third edition of Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Barry explains that the term “liberal humanism” came about in the 1970s “as a shorthand (and mainly hostile) way of referring to the kind of criticism which held sway before theory” (3).  Barry proceeds to clarify the term by defining ‘liberal’ to mean “not politically radical” and ‘humanism’ to imply a belief in human nature as a constant, unchanging entity (3).
To understand liberal humanism more fully, Barry offers up a list of ten basic beliefs which I will now attempt to summarize in a clear and concise manner.  The first point, as outlined by Barry, states that literature is timeless and not time-specific, meaning that the themes will always have relevance.  Barry’s second point suggests that liberal humanism finds meaning contained within the text only, and ignores any outside factors (for example the history surrounding the piece).  Going along with that, Barry argues that a liberal humanist would also ignore any pre-conceived notions one might bring with him when reading.

Barry’s other points can be summarized by a general belief that human nature is unchanging—hence the universality of the themes presented.  According to Barry, it should be said that liberal humanists believe our individuality cannot be transformed and that literature’s purpose is to enhance human life by promoting humane values through sincerity.  This sincerity, asserts Barry, also implies that form and content should come together naturally, and poetic writing should not be thrown in at the last minute.  Barry adds that the text should demonstrate the inherent moral values through the actions of the story, rather than preaching them point-blank.
In reading Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” one universal and timeless theme which a liberal humanist might recognize would be the evident struggle between the individual and society.  Gregor’s family represents society because they all have a clear expectation of him: he is to go to work and make money for the family.  Gregor, however, feels unnoticed in his profession, which can be seen from the beginning.  Kafka’s first sentence states, “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” and Gregor’s first line of dialogue is: “What’s happened to me?” (1).  Here we can see the despair Gregor feels as he has metaphorically turned into a tiny, insignificant insect.

This struggle between the individual and society is further painted as the action unfolds.  Gregor’s mother comes to his door and reminds him of his societal duties, calling through the door, “Didn’t you want to catch the train?” (Kafka 5).  Gregor then responds to her in words that seem plain to his own ears but sound “garbled” to his mother.  His father and sister join the conversation, and none of them can understand what Gregor is saying either (Kafka 5).  In short, society does not hear or comprehend the needs of the individual.
As Gregor’s condition continues to worsen, making it harder and harder to assimilate into the family, the family no longer has a use for him.  “It has to go,” says the sister by the story’s end and the family agrees (Kafka 38).  A liberal humanist would say that Kafka’s story indicates that society only recognizes one’s worth by the role they fill in society, and when one can no longer contribute to society, there is no need for him.  Similarly, society does not recognize things that serve no purpose, such as a hobby in frame-making.  In Kafka’s story, the mother refers to Gregor’s time spent at the fretsaw as a “distraction” because society does not recognize individuality (8).
Liberal humanism judges literature much like society can be said to judge the individual, meaning it approves of only what contributes to the greater good of humanity.  Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” would be considered good literature by a liberal humanist because of its universal themes—the conflict between the individual and society being the one I demonstrated—and because of its strong moral values that enhance the human experience.  Liberal humanism is the most basic way of analyzing literature, and there are indeed more challenging approaches to the written word.
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.

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