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Metamorphosis and all that

26 August 2017

My holidays have been saved by my tablet – not the anti-diarrhoea kind but the electronic device. Instead for taking a pack of 6 or 7 books away, I smuggle them in my tablet. This year as well as some holiday crime fiction, I downloaded Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Oh yes, I know how to have fun in the sun!

I first encountered this book when I was around 10 years old. My primary school teacher read classic books to the class. This is how I first discovered Tolkien’s The Hobbit and also Metamorphosis. Looking back that strikes me as a brilliant and brave thing for my teacher to do.

If you read on beware of plot spoilers.

Gregor Samsa lives with his parents and sister, for whom he is the sole wage earner. He is working hard with the sole motivation of covering his family’s debts and costs. He wakes one morning to the dawning realisation that he has turned into some kind of beetle. The story unfolds with the horror and disbelief felt by his family. Gregor remains locked in his room, fed scraps by his sister. Gradually the family members remove furniture from his room and adjust to life by taking in lodgers and living off their savings. It seems they have been living off Gregor for years. He overhears their conversation expressing frustration at Gregor still being there and referring to him as ‘it’. The final scene is when an emaciated beetle escapes the flat and dies to be swept up by the housekeeper. So the family is free to get on with their lives.

As I reacquainted myself with this book, I made a connection with how we can relate to older dependent generations in our families. Do they easily become non-people whom we suffer as increasing burdens? This is not an easy one to answer honestly.

When my parents died following long, slow declines which sapped their dignity and how I knew them – it caused me to ask myself this. I tried to keep things real, personal and loving. But I saw that the roles we play and the transactions we make are a big part of how children relate to their parents at any age. By transactions, I mean matters of money and control.

Now it has been noted that Kafka may well have been asking similar questions from the other side: how do families and parents relate to children as they reach adulthood? So we could ask whether we see young people beyond the contribution they make or the drain that they are.

Of course, there is much care across generations in our families, much commitment and support. I am not denying or criticising that, it is to be honoured.

But I am asking whether, in the midst of our family roles, people of another generation become objects for us, the “other” we talk about but don’t really understand. They are the “other” we live with, provide for, plan about, worry about and receive from. But I wonder whether all we do for children, young people and older people belies the struggle we have to relate to them as sentient and free people.

I know one reaction to this is to put an age group on a pedestal. I believe that is not the answer for it merely makes those outside that group into providers and objects. I think this touches on issues of identity, faith, development and trust

I write this as a person, a parent and a child of parents.

So I realise that the most shocking thing in Metamorphosis is not the big creepy dung beetle in the bedroom but that the beetle ends up a thing swept away and maybe was a thing all along.

Graham Brownlee, August 2017


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