Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Psychoanalytic Critique of Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis'

"Literary Theory Week" continues on!  Are you guys getting bored yet?  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.  It's a great story!  Anyway, here's another A+ paper I wrote, this one on the approach known as psychoanalysis:

Psychoanalysis—as referring to therapy—studies the relationship between the conscious and unconscious portions of the brain.  When this sort of practice is applied to literature, one can discover a great deal from what is both written and unwritten in a text.  In an attempt to further examine the psychoanalytic approach to literature, I will first discuss both the beliefs of Sigmund Freud and his successor Jacques Lacan as explained by Peter Barry in his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory and then apply Lacan’s psychoanalytic approach to the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.
Barry, in the third edition of his book, informs that the theories of psychoanalysis were developed by an Austrian named Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 20th Century (92).  According to Barry, Freud’s ideas centered around the belief in the unconscious, a part of the mind that you don’t necessarily think about—thus differing from the conscious—but which still has an effect on your actions (92).  Barry then explains some of the different terms commonly used by Freud, such as repression, sublimation and projection (92-93).  Repression is when our minds choose to forget unwanted memories, sublimation is when we turn something repressed into something outwardly better and, as Barry explains it, projection is when we can recognize our own faults in others but not in ourselves (92-93).  These various “defense mechanisms,” as Freud called them, protect us mentally from what we are not yet ready to process or deal with (Barry 94).  They also explain why we do a lot of the things we do, and in literature, this can be used to uncover the unconscious motives of characters or of the author and really find the deeper implied meaning of the story.
Barry then moves on from Freudian interpretation to discuss the work of a Frenchman named Jacques Lacan.  Barry insists that Lacan’s ideas differ greatly from Freud’s in the sense that Freud believed our psyche simply existed while Lacan felt that even our psyche was composed of words—language (106).  Lacan asked: “How could a psychoanalyst of today not realize that his realm of truth is in fact the word?” (Barry 106).  So like the post-structuralists already discussed in this class, Lacan’s focus is on language and how it constitutes our being in the world.
Barry goes on to relate Lacan’s explanation of how we move from an unconscious state—which Lacan would say is the ideal state—to a conscious one by a process involving three stages: the Imaginary, the “mirror-stage” and the Symbolic (109).  Lacan explains that the Imaginary is our most unconscious state before language sets in, where everything is unnamable (Barry 109).  When language enters the picture, Lacan calls this transitional period to the conscious realm the “mirror-stage,” like when a baby first notices his reflection—his own individual sense of self (Barry 109).  Barry elaborates that this stage is one conflicted with a sense of lack and separation because we cannot ever get back to the Imaginary (109).  The last stage, given by Lacan, is the Symbolic which is one-hundred-percent defined by language (109).  Here Lacan introduces the term “the Other” because we can no longer access the thing itself; just the word we’ve assigned to it (Barry 109).  A Lacanian critic recognizes these three stages at work in the literary text.
As an example, I will approach Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” from a Lacanian viewpoint.   The text of “The Metamorphosis” enacts the sense of lack and separation that comes from the loss of the Imaginary.  The world Gregor lives in is one full of rigid social constructs and language—the Symbolic—and his character yearns for the Imaginary that he can never fully regain because that is where his true individuality lies.  If the family makes up the Symbolic, the character of Gregor then must be said to dwell in the Imaginary because he clearly does not fit in with the family.  In fact, Gregor’s death on page 39 can be interpreted as the death of the Imaginary.
A perfect example of this irruption between the Imaginary and the Symbolic can be found on page 33 of the novella.  Lacan says that the Imaginary is unnamable because it is pre-language (Barry 109), and it’s interesting to note that Kafka makes sure never to “name” specifically what Gregor has metamorphosed into.  In fact, in the first sentence of the story Gregor wakes up to find he is a “monstrous vermin” (Kafka 3).  The only character to ever assign Gregor a name—thus putting him into the realm of the Symbolic where everything is governed by language—is the maid.  Page 33 reads:  “In the beginning she also used to call him over to her with words she probably considered friendly, like, ‘Come over here for a minute, you old dung beetle!’ or ‘Look at that old dung beetle!’”  Gregor’s response to her is key.  The text reads: “To forms of address like these Gregor would not respond but remained immobile where he was, as if the door had not been opened.”  Following Lacan, this show’s Gregor’s reluctance to inhabit the Symbolic realm, the door of which he refuses to enter.
Psychoanalytic criticism sheds new light on literature, finding much more meaning unconsciously lurking beneath the letters on the page.  Understanding the theories of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and other psychoanalytic pioneers can unlock quite a lot of subconscious truths found within the characters and their written stories.  This approach also makes it apparent to us, the reader, that our world—and even our very psyche—is constructed solely with words and defined entirely by language.

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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