Kafka And His Use Of Metaphor
"Kafka is the greatest German writer of our time" says Vladimir Nabokov. What makes a person the greatest one? That person has to be the best in whatever he does. But since literature is so hard to judge, how can we determine why one deserves to be called the best? The only way is to amalgamate all the literary elements and give them a new purpose and idea. And that's exactly what Franz Kafka does. He unites figurative and concrete language, the reader and the text. However, one of the most significant elements of his writing is his amazing use of metaphor.
"A metaphor is an -- implied comparison of two different objects, ideas, or actions in order to enrich the meaning of the original. A metaphor reveals that the two different things being compared, in fact, share a quality that gives them a surprising resemblance. Unlike simile, a metaphor does not involve the use of like or as." (World Literature, pg. 878).
Metaphor is a tool in Kafka's hands that he knows very well how to use. He uses metaphor throughout his whole corpus, and pushes it to it's highest limits, sometimes exceeds it to absurd; he uses metaphor to show the relationships which exist between human beings.
In the "Metamorphosis" Kafka uses metaphor to show the lack of communication in the relationships between the members of an ordinary low class family. To show that relationship he turns the main character, Gregor Samsa into an insect: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect" (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 20). The metaphor is here right away, in the impossibility of communication between humans and an insect. Samsa's family doesn't want to be connected to him in any way any more. They don't even want to see him so he tries to keep out of their way and stays in his room all the time. But he can't accept the fact that his family is rejecting him just because he changed his shape but stayed mentally the same. Actually we are not sure through the whole story who Gregor Samsa is and how to perceive him: as a human being with his feelings and mind or just as an simple insect, an animal that we are disgusted by.
"We are never certain what exactly Gregor is, and because od this creatively focused ambiguity, entirely new associations between man and beast are allowed to spring from us". (Wisniewski, My Master's Degree Exam On Kafka, pg. 1)
We can follow how he becomes more and more lonely and how he misses a contact with other humans whose coldness, ignorance and not trying to understand the situation result from the lack of communication. His father can't even relate this huge insect in front of him to his only son.
"... he (his father) seized in his right hand the walking stick the chief clerk had left behind on a chair, together with a hat and a greatcoat, snatched in his left hand a large newspaper from the table and began stamping his feet and flourishing the stick and the newspaper to drive Gregor back into his room." (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 41).
His repulsion towards his son ended as cruelty, and father killed Gregor with his own hand.
"But another (apple) following immediately landed right on his back and sank in; Gregor wanted to drag himself forward, as if this startling, incredible pain could be left behind him; but he felt as if nailed to the spot and flattened himself out in a complete derangement of all his senses." (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 68-69).
If there was any understanding and communication between father and son, the crush in the family would never happen. The metaphor is used here just to show better how relationships among people are important.
The other significant metaphor which is used through "The Hunger Artist" is a short novel in which the comparison is between the greedy people who are amused by a man who starves himself for living is showed. It shows how people can easily forget something after it gets out of their sight. The Hunger Artist is a man who fasts and becomes very popular. But through his own success he understands how people are forgetful and how they quickly lose interest. He starves himself as an act of art but in the eyes of people he is actually "a sick freak" (Meno Spann, Franz Kafka, pg. 165). His show of starving is strictly limited to 40 days after which he has to leave the town because the audience loses interest by that time. The Artist doesn't understand that, his question is:
"His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him, if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn't the public endure it?" (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 203-204).
Gradually the people totally lose the interest in him and he has to go to hire himself out to a circus, where he a part of a side show.
"While in happier days his main sorrow had been the impresario's strictly imposed limit of forty hunger days, he is now unhappy about the general indifference toward him. He has been without food for an incredibly long time, but nobody counts the days, and the circus visitors hurry past his cage to see the wild animals." (Meno Spann,Franz Kafka, pg.164).
And then comes the sudden turnabout. The image of the great art of starving that is first presented as an impossible deed, one worth worshiping as a skill. This image later is broken into little pieces becoming just a plain, accepted part of natural living when the Artist himself gives an earthly explanation for his starving:
"...'because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.' These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast." (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 212).
Like the most Kafka's characters, the Artist realized too late the meaninglessness of his life. Everything he was proud off falls apart and he dies in misery. And the people continue their lives without even noticing that the Hunger Artist doesn't exist any more.
The short stories "The Judgment" and "In the Penal Colony" are also good examples of Kafka's remarkable use of metaphor in his stories. In "The Judgment", the metaphor, like in the "Metamorphosis" lies in a failure of communication. The lack of communication is between the father and the son and becomes fatal. The metaphor itself comes from Kafka's own life; "the deeply disturbed father-son relationship there exists parallels in Kafka's life at that time. He and his father hated each other with a vengeance" (Meno Span, Franz Kafka, pg. 55). His own life reflected in his stories. The father is paranoid about becoming old and being replaced which he didn't want to happen: "...you wanted to cover me up, I know, my young sprig, but I'm far from being covered up yet" (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 14). On the other hand the son is disrespectful towards his father and underestimates him. The conflict comes when the son understands that his father is not a kind of a person that he imagined he would be, and the father finally has a chance to show his real face. Also there is a struggle for the power between them. At the end the power is in father's hands inspite of the fact that at the beginning he was the one who was described as an inferior and dependent being. He, with all his power and without mercy condemns his son to death:
"An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly you have been a devilish human being! -And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning" (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 18).
The ending is very surprising but logical; the father and the son could not live any more under the same roof because the conflict would be repeated all over again till one of them dies; they both are too similar to see it. They are the same as the main character in "The Burrow": a hermit who couldn't stand living with another being, and is paranoid about someone comming and ruining her peace. She would attack the first animal in her burrow right away without thinking just to take out the hatred that she has towards other beings.
"If he were actually to arrive now if in his obscene lust he were actually to discover the entrance..... if he were actually to wriggle his way in my stead....if all this were actually to happen...., I might in my blind rage leap on him, maul him, tear the flesh from his bones, destroy him, maul him, drink his blood and fling his corpse among the rest of my spoil..." (Kafka, Selected Short Stories, pg. 289).
The hermit is isolated and without any contact with the outer world, he becomes closed-minded. The same thing happens to the father and the son in "The Judgment" where, since their mother/wife has died they have lost their connection and closed their minds towards one another which resolves in a fatal ending, in which the son kills himself.
Kafka uses the metaphor to show the relations between family members, mostly using the relationship between a father and a son as a reference to his real life.
"The hero, who usually represents an aspect of Kafka's inner life, is chiefly one who appears distorted, metamorphosed, abnormal or extraordinary in a "normal" world." (Meno Span, Franz Kafka, pg. 42).
He mostly ends his existence in a tragic manner, mirroring his real life. He brings his own life into his stories through his use of the metaphor. His metaphor is not the one that we are usually faced with in literature; these metaphors are extended and go throughout the whole story. They show things that one cannot express with literary terms. The metaphors allow the imagination of the reader the needed space to create its own perception of the story. "Metaphors develop according to their implications, and unreal situations and happenings fused with the real world of the story out of which they develop." (Meno Spann). Yes, Kafka was one of the few who managed to combine the imaginary world of the story with the real one that we are living in and point the truths of the life through his stories. That's why now we can agree with Vladimir Nabokov's that Kafka was the greatest German writer of our time, and that he deserves that title.
Astrid Kuljaniĉ, IV1,1996./97.