Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Structuralist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

"Literary Theory Week" continues! 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.  Unfortunately this paper was my worst!  I got a B- on it and you will see why.  I didn't really follow through at the end.  Oh well.  Our lowest score was dropped so this paper doesn't exist!   This one is on the approach known as structuralism...

In contrast to the more traditional liberal humanist way of interpreting a novel which focuses on universal themes and morals seemingly implicit in the plot itself, the theory of structuralism looks beyond plot and hones in on the actual structure of the language itself to find meaning.  In an attempt to examine the structuralist approach, I will first discuss some of its basic concepts as explained by Peter Barry in the third edition of his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory and then apply a structuralist practice to the short story “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka.

Barry begins his discussion of structuralism by first quoting from the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who gives us three fundamental pronouncements of structuralism.  The first one, as Barry reports, is that the meaning of words is arbitrary, meaning that the actual word does not relate to the idea of the object in an essential or intrinsic way (40).  Barry then states that the second point Saussure makes is that the meaning of words are relational to one another.  An example Barry uses is the word “hut.”  As Barry explains, “hut” only has meaning to us when we compare it to other words such as “shed” or “house” or “palace” (41).  The third and final view held by Saussure is that language constitutes our world, and as Barry elaborates, “Meaning is always attributed to the object or idea by the human mind, and constructed by and expressed through language: it is not already contained within the thing” (42).
Another expert that Barry cites is Roland Barthes, who asserts that a structuralist critic “relates the text to some larger containing structure” (48).  The structure mentioned, according to Barthes, could be the conventions of genre, a network of connections or recurrent motifs (Barry 48).  Barry also writes two other actions that Barthes claims structuralists do: they find parallels in the language structure and then they apply a concept of “systematic patterning and structuring” (48).  When finding this patterning, Barry declares that Barthes breaks down the text into smaller units of meaning called “lexies” and then categorizes them using a system of five codes (48-49). 
In order to demonstrate this structuralist practice, I will break down the opening sentence of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” into lexies and assign them one by one to the five codes.  The first lexie is “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning” (Kafka 1) which falls into both the prorairetic code because it indicates action and the semic code because it constitutes a character.  A structuralist might find the next part of the sentence “from unsettling dreams” (Kafka 1) to be a second lexie categorized as hermeneutic because the text is constructed in a way that provides narrative suspense.  We as the reader want to know more about the dream he had.  The third and final lexie in the first sentence is “he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin” (Kafka 1).  This lexie falls into the proairetic because it again indicates action, but it also uses language linked to theme and could be coded using the symbolic code.
The symbolic code is an interesting one, and Barry clarifies: “It consists of contrasts and pairings related to the most basic binary polarities” (50).  The third lexie comparing the character of Gregor to a monstrous vermin contains a contrast of human attributes to those of an insect.  These binary polarities in the text construct the character of Gregor as one feeling unimportant, lowly and unwanted—all words we associate with the phrase “monstrous vermin.”  Instantly we see one of the major, larger-scale themes of the entire short story created within the language of the opening sentence.
While structuralism at first glance might feel cold and scientific, this removal of the text from the world—or rather this distancing from liberal humanism—can get to the true meaning of a text without letting our own moral judgments interfere.  A structuralist sees only what the text provides, and this schematic way of dissecting the structure of language has forever changed the way literature is read and interpreted.

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.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails